The recent confluence of conservation and farming interests that resolved a years-long delay in adoption of rules for use of North Coast water needed for protected fish also could direct the outcome of pending regulation of water used for protecting crops from frost damage.

The State Water Resources Control Board is expected to rule soon on whether such pumping from streams or connected aquifers is a “beneficial use” of water under the state Constitution and, if so, how water would be set aside for protected fish.

The board would rather the stakeholders work out a solution in a similar way as with the instream flow policy, according to spokesman Bill Rukeyser.

Victoria Whitney, head of the board’s Water Rights Division, testified in recent board meetings on the regulations that frost protection is a "beneficial use," but such use should be coordinated. Board Chairman Charlie Hoppin said in those sessions that protecting fish and allowing agriculture are twin goals.

“It frames the issue and where we’re going with it,” Mr. Rukeyser said.

Under consideration are Mendocino County and Sonoma County versions of a Russian River Frost Program developed out of a task force started in 2008 by farming groups, regulators and scientists to deal with the issue. Key to the programs are a system of monitoring, coordinated pumping and construction of offstream reservoirs.

Federal wildlife regulators and some conservation groups have been pressuring the board to curtail water use for frost protection, particularly since a few weeks of back-to-back frosty nights in 2008 led farmers to tap their ponds and adjacent waterways to save newly budded vines and pear trees from damage.

National Marine Fisheries Service enforcement agents sent the water board a letter early last year pointing to two incidents of fish being left without water on the Russian River near Hopland and on the Felta Creek tributary in Sonoma County as a reason for regulating frost-protection water use.

Earlier this month the Green Valley Pastures LLC, a small vineyard operated by the Folger family on Felta Creek, received a violation notice from the fisheries service, alleging six days of frost-protection pumping from the creek in 2008 and one day last year led to stranding of hundreds of coho salmon, 36 of which died.

The proposed fine is $115,500. The Folgers have 30 days to respond. Some wine industry trade groups are proposing a legal challenge to the action.

That action has upset some of the participants in the proposed management programs.

"The frustrating thing with the frost policy is that it's not clear what they're trying to accomplish," said Laurel Marcus, executive director of the Napa-based California Land Stewardship Institute, which operates the Fish-Friendly Farming certification program and helped secure $5.7 million in federal commitments to reservoir projects. "There were two incidents where fish were dewatered, and both of those issues have been totally addressed."

More than $1.8 million has been spent on 10 projects, moving 87 cubic feet per second of creek and river flow to offstream sources. For the Folgers, that included the drilling of a well, and for the Hopland area reservoirs were constructed.

A benefit of getting hundreds of grape growers to turn out for frost program informational meetings is that a number of instream diversions such as pumps and ponds can be moved to offstream sources, Ms. Marcus said. However, the funds to do such work is scarce given economic conditions she noted.

Among the concerns from the wine industry over heavy restrictions or a ban on frost-protection water use is that sprinklers are better than wind machines and other methods for protecting crops from frost in a number of key North Coast winegrowing regions, because of topography and climate, according to Ms. Marcus.

Another troubling aspect of the frost-water management discussions are conclusions being made about interconnectedness of aquifers supplying certain wells and surface water, according to Ms. Marcus.

U.C. Berkeley Environmental Planning professor Matt Kondolf, chairman of the proposed frost program's Science Advisory Group, wrote the water board on March 30 that the proposed regulations for testing of a well's impact on streamflow would require shutting off all wells, including municipal ones, tapping the same source. Cooperative management of the "well field" is a better approach, he suggested.

Don McEnhill, executive director of Russian Riverkeeper, said he's personally seen creek water disappear in narrow North Coast canyons when well pumps are turned on nearby. But regulation of groundwater should address rural residences as well.

"People think farms take all the water," he said.