GEYSERVILLE -- Winegrape growers that depend on water in the Russian River Basin to protect their vines from frost assert they have a better idea of how much water they're using and how to limit such use, while wildlife regulators say they're getting more precise information of water overuse and tools to curtail it.

That's what a capacity gathering of 168 vineyard and winery professionals braved an Alexander Valley downpour to hear at a Feb. 26 workshop on the nascent Russian River Frost Program. That program was presented to the State Water Resources Control Board in November as way to cooperatively manage water use similar to Napa Valley's three-decade-old regime.

Key to that management program are accurate information on the amount of water in the creeks and river at any given time before, during and after frost protection and irrigation as well as a good projection of water demand based on the number of acres using water against frost and the water actually used, according to farm bureau representatives from Mendocino and Sonoma counties. That means knowing how many acres of vines are frost-protected with water and having water and stream gauges to monitor use.

"We can show to the water board we are saving water from the maximum amount of water we could use," Laurel Marcus, executive director of the California Land Stewardship Institute, said at the workshop, which was hosted by the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission.

The group administers the Fish-Friendly Farming program, which develops fish habitat conservation projects. The institute is close to finalizing computer spreadsheets growers can use for figuring out how much water they are saving by following best-management practices for frost protection over conventional methods, according to Ms. Marcus.

The wine industry must show evidence of water conservation as the State Water Resources Control Board considers frost-water regulations as part of implementing the North Coast Instream Flow Policy called for under Assembly Bill 2121, she said. Federal fish regulators and conservation groups have called on the board to restrict the use of water for frost.

After presenting the program to the state water board, program advocates had their first discussions with the board on Feb. 16 in Sacramento.

Doug McIllroy, director of grower and vineyard operations for Rodney Strong Wine Estates, was one of the grower representatives at the meeting. "We're trying to define what it means to be in the program," he said at the Geyserville workshop. "It just got off the ground. It seems to be a collaborative discussion."

One of the points to be staked down is what is considered to be "significant" diversion of water from surface and underground channels for agricultural use, Mr. McIllroy noted.

At the workshop, the farm bureaus presented the latest tally of their survey of grapegrowing properties in the two counties based on information submitted by the growers and details from county assessor's offices.

In Sonoma County, 28,370 vineyard acres surveyed included 99 percent of 18,973 acres the assessor's office had noted for using frost protection, according to Lex McCorvey, executive director of the local farm bureau. Areas of focus were the Mayacama, Mark West and Green Valley watersheds.

"We think we've done a great job reaching out to growers and getting participation," he said.

Some of those acres are not in the Russian River watershed or use recycled water or wind machines in frost protection, he noted. As for frost protection by overhead sprinklers, which can use up to 50 gallons of water an hour during peak frost events, the county tally so far drops to 16,000 acres, according to Pete Opatz, vice president of viticulture for Silverado Premium Properties and actively involved in the frost program.

In Mendocino County, the farm bureau has surveyed 2,400 acres of vines along three tributaries fingered for the drop in water level on the Russian River during the record stint of frost in 2008, according to Dave Koball, farm bureau second vice president and county vineyard director for the Fetzer and Bonterra brands. Of those acres, 24 properties totaling 2,300 acres are drawing water from the waterways.

"We can show that we're not diverting as much as some think we are," Mr. Koball said at the workshop.

A figure that has been presented at some state water board hearings on frost-water use is 63,000 acres of vineyards under frost protection. The farm bureau tally so far has shown the actual use to be about 21,000 acres.

At the same time, the private and public sectors are installing stream gauges. The Russian River Property Owners Association has installed four gauges in the past two years to use in creating a schedule for pumping, making the data available at www.cohopartnership.org.

The National Marine Fisheries Service is working with the state water board to put in stream gauges on North Coast waterways of concern because of breeding habitat for protected fish, actual sightings of the fish and a concentration of vineyards, according to fisheries service officials at the workshop. Seven watersheds of interest in fisheries service modeling are Green Valley, Dry Creek, Mark West, Mayacama, Dooley, McNab and York.

The fisheries service is sending out letters to property owners requesting access for assessments, and it would be better for the property owner to grant permission than to wait for an enforcement action, according to Victoria Whitney, deputy director for the state water board's water rights division.

"There are situations in which we would have increasingly less patience," she said. "A grower identifies a problem and comes to us for help, we catch you and then you ask for help to solve it, or we catch you and you tell us to go away so we send it to the district attorney."

She mentioned there is one undisclosed investigation in progress in the North Coast connected to the 2008 frost event. Ms. Whitney expects to be getting some new enforcement officers as part of the Senate Bill 6 water legislation signed by the governor late last year. The wet weather so far in the season may preclude activation of enforcement teams to problem creeks when frost is forecast, but the teams will be responding in the future.

The state water board also sent out letters recently to holders of water rights or diversion permits. The letter noted major changes in reporting water usage and stiff penalties for noncompliance. Reports can be submitted electronically this year but must be done so starting next year.

"There have always been penalties for improper filing on licenses," said Paula Whealen, a water engineer with Sacramento-based Wagner and Bonsignore, which consulted on the Russian River Frost Program. "Now there are penalties for improper filings of water use."

Penalty for failure to file diversion use reports after January 2009 increased from none to $1,000 with 30 days to file and $500 a day thereafter. For accidentally submitting incorrect usage such as because of broken plumbing, the penalty decreased to $250 from $500 with 60 days to correct and $250 a day afterward. "Willful" misstatements now cost $25,000, rather than $1,000 with 30 days to correct and $1,000 daily from then on.

The U.C. Cooperative Extension for Napa County will be hosting a free water conservation and frost protection workshop Tuesday morning in Yountville. To reserve a seat, call Deborah Elliott at 707-259-5969.