Groups rally to show they can protect vines while saving water for fish

SANTA ROSA – A coalition of farming trade groups and major winegrape growers in Mendocino and Sonoma counties plans to demonstrate the state water regulators at a meeting Wednesday that growers have made significant recent progress toward protecting fish while protecting their vines from frost, despite a new letter from federal fish wardens to the contrary.

[caption id="attachment_16668" align="alignleft" width="288" caption=" Rich Schaefer, general manager of Beckstoffer Vineyards' Mendocino County operations, stands on the rim of a 60 acre-foot reservoir the company built in accordance with approved water rights to tap Russian River water for frost protection. (photo courtesy of Sean White, Mendocino County Russian River Flood Control and Water Conservation Improvement District)"][/caption]

The State Water Resources Control Board plans to hold a workshop in Sacramento regarding its April directive to water and wildlife regulators, water suppliers and farming groups to work together toward making sure that frost-protection efforts don't leave fish without water. Some officials said that occurred in the Russian River and a tributary in 2008 during the worst stint of spring frost in three decades.

State law requires enough water to remain in North Coast waterways for habitat of protected fish and control of dam releases to avoid upsetting that habitat.

In an Oct. 22 letter to the board, the Santa Rosa law enforcement group of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service noted "few, if any, tangible results" in more than a year of monthly meetings of the Russian River Frost Protection Task Force.

"Since there has been no significant progress with these efforts, it is still our opinion that the only way to prevent future kills of ESA-listed salmonids is for the State Water Resources Control Board to recognize their responsibility and implement water-use regulations that fully address frost protection," wrote Dan Torquemada, assistant special agent in charge.

"Failure to do so will continue to result in take, and the use of tremendous volumes of water diverted for frost protection will continue to pose a future threat to ESA-listed salmonids, some on the verge of extinction, throughout the entire Russian River watershed."

[caption id="attachment_16669" align="alignright" width="288" caption="A Farm Bill grant helped fund an 8 acre-foot reservoir Peter Chevalier Jr. of Chevalier Vineyard Management built for Sawyer Vineyards to shift frost-protection water sourcing from the Russian River. (photo courtesy of Sean White, Mendocino County Russian River Flood Control and Water Conservation Improvement District)"][/caption]

The task force made "some progress" in developing best management practices for frost protection and water use, a framework for monitoring cooperation in the solutions and facilitation of permits that allow for solutions such as construction of off-stream reservoirs, according to the letter.

However, the NOAA wardens are concerned about how those reservoirs are filled or refilled and the extension of these management efforts to all tributaries with fish habitat in the river basin.

Leaders of the farm bureaus in Mendocino and Sonoma counties said they plan to use this letter as a springboard to detail good-faith efforts and "real progress" toward solutions to what they consider to be a short-term problem.

"Why this letter from NOAA is frustrating is we have not put this on the back burner, because this is our livelihood," said Devon Jones, executive director of the Mendocino County Farm Bureau. "When it comes down to frost water or irrigation water, most will go for frost water, because if they do not have crops in the spring they will not have grapes to irrigate."

The first-year allocation of $500,000 from a $5.7 million, five-year federal Farm Bill grant was hurriedly put toward $1 million in projects to move sources of frost-protection water linked to the 2008 reports of fish deaths, according to Laurel Marcus, executive director of the California Land Stewardship Institute, which manages the Fish Friendly Farming conservation certification program.

Out of nine applications, three reservoirs were funded off the main stem of the Russian River at Hopland, a location cited in the fisheries service's February letter for a stranding of young fish on a frosty night. About $2.5 million has been spent in the county this year on such ponds.

Separately, major winegrape growers Fetzer and Bonterra Vineyards plus Beckstoffer Vineyards are chipping in their own funds as well as sacrificing some vines to build storage ponds near Hopland. It’s costing Fetzer $775,000 to replace seven acres of vines and four acres of plantable land with two reservoirs totaling 60 acre-feet, and both are expected to reduce river water demand by 15 cubic feet per second, according to vineyard director David Koball.

The grant- and privately funded ponds in the Hopland area are projected to reduce river flow demand by 87 cfs, according to Ms. Marcus. Best management practices for managing water use during frost are being tested at several locations in the North Coast.

The first-year grant money also went toward moving a frost-protection source for a seven-acre vineyard in Sonoma County from Felta Creek, a river tributary via Mill and Dry creeks in Sonoma County and the site of the other reported 2008 fish stranding, to a new well.

The fisheries service wardens want the state water board to act on a 1997 staff report that concluded it is inappropriate to use water needed for fish habitat to protect newly budded vines from spring frosts. Short-term, emergency measures are needed, Mr. Torquemada told the Business Journal.

“There are many flavors of BMPs,” he wrote about best management practices. “None of them are systemwide, monitored and transparent and fully participated in.”

Better coordination of water releases to the river from Lake Mendocino with new gauges is having an unquantified effect on habitat near Coyote Dam, and this measure doesn’t address frost-protection diversions of water from tributaries, Mr. Torquemada said.

“Monitoring streamflow and water use is fundamental to effective water management, but most growers have refused to monitor and report,” he said.

Such concerns prompted the coalition of farm groups, water suppliers, conservation project proponents and property owners to submit to the state water board on Nov. 10 a 142-page Russian River Frost Program. It seeks to cooperatively manage use of water in the Russian River watershed for frost protection without regulation on direct taps of waterways in the basin similar to what has been in place in Napa Valley since the severe drought three decades ago.

The plan combines geography-specific programs from Mendocino and Sonoma counties for more education of growers of their responsibilities to leave water for protected fish and creation of an independent advisory group of scientists who would study physical processes in the basin – creating the tributary water budgets the fisheries service in August told the task force it wanted –and progress toward effective water management then report findings to regulators.

The Nov. 18 workshop will be held at 1 p.m. in the second floor Coastal Hearing Room of the Cal-EPA building at 1001 I St. in Sacramento. It will be broadcast on the Internet at www.calepa.ca.gov/Broadcast/. Documents are posted at www.waterboards.ca.gov/waterrights/water_issues/programs/hearings/russian_river_frost/.