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Interest groups seek to delay action; growers back ‘proactive’ steps

SANTA ROSA -- The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors last Tuesday voted 5-0 to proceed to a final vote at this week's meeting on a draft frost-protection water use ordinance, despite warnings from several interest groups to slow down the process and make it more "transparent."

County staff will be working until Dec. 14 at 10 a.m. to craft a final ordinance from recent revisions, including six by the County Counsel's Office earlier Tuesday, plus address concerns highlighted by the National Marine Fisheries Service. At the same meeting, county staff hope to finish work on a schedule of fees to pay for the monitoring and reporting program.

The goal is to get growers' frost-protection systems registered by the time the frost season begins in the spring and increase the coverage of monitoring to 22 creeks via 70 to 100 gauges over three years. Penalties for noncompliance with a county ordinance are more than $1,000 plus $500 a day as well as possible jail time.

"Is it perfect? No," said Supervisor Shirlee Zane. "But it is a good pilot for the regulations that are to come, and it supports a cash crop in this county."

Peter Rumble, an analyst in the County Administrator's Office, emphasized to the board that the county Agricultural Commissioner's Office would retain ownership of data collected by a likely "qualified nonprofit" contractor to manage the gauge-monitoring and reporting program. A number of conservation groups have objected to a leading contender for the contract to run the monitoring and reporting program being Russian River Water Coalition Inc., a nonprofit recently formed by winegrape growers for that purpose.

"There is no hiding of information," Mr. Rumble told the board.

The draft ordinance includes a system of real-time stream gauges, data-logging gauges and analysis by an independent panel of scientists plus federal and state wildlife regulators before being submitted to the State Water Resources Control Board near the end of each year.

David Hines, coordinator of the National Marine Fisheries Service's water policy program, told the board that county staff incorporated many elements that concerned the agency, as expressed in an Oct. 19 letter to the board leading up to the Nov. 9 presentation of the draft ordinance. Three aspects of the revised draft he said he liked are the registration program, which he noted for the first time will provide an inventory of who is diverting how much water from the watershed, a planned stream-flow monitoring program and the independent science review panel to provide "transparency and objectivity" to the monitoring program.

"While it has a lot of promise, I can't support it until a few issues are resolved," Mr. Hines told the board. He allowed that the problems stem from the haste in bringing the proposed ordinance forward. He said he looked forward to working with the county up to next Tuesday to resolve the concerns.

Mr. Hines told the board he saw potential for the stream-gauge data to be withheld from regulators and was concerned about accuracy of the information reported by the growers on how they're using the water for frost protection. He said he was reassured by Mr. Rumble's statement to the board Tuesday that the Agricultural Commissioner's Office would own the data under the contract, making the data subject to public-records requests.

Another concern Mr. Hines noted was the draft frost-water ordinance is now a monitoring program and not regulation, making it unclear to him how the ordinance would be incorporated into the forthcoming state regulation.

"The proposal is an important first step to reduce the threat to endangered salmonids in the Russian River," Mr. Hines said.

The proposed ordinance also could prepare growers in the county for the updated state Water Code, set to take effect Jan. 1, 2012. The code calls for continuous monitoring of diversions from Russian River Basin water ways such as direct pumping or adjacent wells.

"There are new reporting requirements, and this is a way to help develop a reporting program," Mr. Hines said.

He added that the proposed frost-water ordinance is part of a larger issue regarding land use as vineyards have been created in outlying areas.

Of the 17 speakers during the public-comment period last Tuesday, most were representatives from various conservation organizations, and many called for the board to slow down the process or defer frost-water and management to the fisheries service or the State Water Resources Control Board, which recently started environmental-impact analysis on Russian River frost-water rules.

Alan Levine, director of Coast Action Coalition, said some of the changes to the draft ordinance presented Tuesday were positive and he supported a registration program but warned the county that it could be taking on legal liability if any more dead fish were connected to frost-water use.

Stephen Fuller-Rowell, co-founder of the 32-member Sonoma County Water Coalition, said the group was excluded from the "rush" process, and it wanted more details about the structure of the Russian River Water Coalition.

"Transparency and trust are needed," he said.

Brian Johnson, an attorney with Trout Unlimited, said he supported continued development of the county frost-water program, but details about accountability, transparency and roles for all the parties and agencies involved need to be detailed. He added that all the proposed stream gauges need to be reporting real-time data, not just eight of them to begin with.

"I have cautious optimism this will come together," he said.

The proposed ordinance would call for installation of 28 stream-flow gauges in 2011, increasing over the three-year ramp up to a total of one to five gauges on 22 streams. Eight of the 28 initial gauges, logging data every 15 minutes, would have real-time data available on the Internet.

Data would be provided to regulators by July 1. Analysis by the panel would be provided to regulators by Nov. 1, followed by a report with panel and regulator comments to the state water board by Dec. 1. Those would become annual reporting dates, according to the draft.

Twenty-five gauges would be added the second year to fill in data and reporting gaps.

The program would be reviewed when the state water board adopts the North Coast frost rules and again in July 2015.

David Keller, Bay Area director of Friends of the Eel River, said the proposal lacks a requirement that registered growers have legal water rights and wanted the county to wait until the state adopts the frost-water rules.

"The first vineyard ordinance was an excursion into fantasyland," he told the Board of Supervisors. "The second frost ordinance is just a decal on the growers' tractor windows."

Al Cadd, president of the Russian River Property Owners Association, was one of three property owners and winegrape growers to speak in favor of the ordinance at the hearing. He said the formation of Russian River Water Coalition and the draft ordinance are proactive steps those interested parties took. The alternative would have been to wait until the state took action.

"If we are put on a confrontational basis with the state, we could have just sat back and let the fish die," he said.

A better solution, he said, was to create a system by which property owners would cooperate.