Thursday seminar to address rules for Sonoma County

[caption id="attachment_28754" align="alignright" width="360" caption="Doug McIlroy "][/caption]

NORTH BAY -- Getting winegrape growers up to speed quickly on Sonoma County’s new ordinance on use of Russian River Basin water for frost protection will be a hot topic of a major viticulture seminar in Santa Rosa this Thursday.

As the March 1 deadline approaches for registration of frost-protection systems under the newly adopted Sonoma County Vineyard and Orchard Frost Protection Ordinance, Doug McIlroy, director of winegrowing for Rodney Strong Wine Estates, will be updating growers attending the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission's Dollars & Sense Seminar on a flurry of recent activity to prepare for this new reality of North Coast viticulture. A more in-depth workshop is planned for the afternoon.

"Growers are becoming more and more aware they have to observe the Endangered Species Act in their operations," Mr. McIlroy said, noting that most growers want to do the right thing. "The fish are here and in their lives, and they have to understand the consequences. If they don't pay attention to it, the consequences are not that pretty."

The county ordinance, adopted Dec. 14 by the Board of Supervisors and set to phase in over three years, was developed last summer in response to pending rulemaking by the State Water Resources Control Board on use of water for frost protection in the Russian River watershed.

The National Marine Fisheries Service demanded action on such water use in Mendocino and Sonoma counties following a few strandings of protected fish blamed on growers' sprinkler-based protection systems tapping waterways during the extraordinary string of frosty nights in 2008.

The timetable for the proposed state regulation of Russian River Basin water for frost protection remains what was outlined at a November environmental-review scoping meeting in Santa Rosa, according to water board spokesman David Clegern. A second draft of the rules is set to be released next month, followed by public comment periods on the environmental and economic-impact documents and stakeholder workshops later this year. The water board would revisit the proposal in the fall with the goal to have rules in place for the 2012 frost season.

Mendocino County farming and public officials are waiting until the second draft is released before deciding how to proceed with a frost water-management program, according to county farm bureau Executive Director Devon Jones.

In response to the frost of 2008, the county flood-control district worked with growers to set up coordinated drawing of frost-protection water. That could be adapted into a formalized management program to comply with pending state rules, Ms. Jones said.

Mendocino County growers could have a steeper adjustment curve for a frost-water registration program than those in Sonoma County, where growers have been required to submit erosion-control plans to the county for many vineyard projects for the past decade, according to Ms. Jones.

"We'd have to go more grassroots to get buy-in," she said.

Outreach efforts are flowing in parallel streams in both counties.

The Russian River Water Conservation Council, a new nonprofit corporation expected to manage the Sonoma County frost ordinance's monitoring program under contract, is working with county officials on a permit fee schedule and the grower agreement to present to the Board of Supervisors on Feb. 1.

The five interim council board members are Alexander Valley grower Allan Nelson, Pete Opatz of Silverado Premium Properties, Doug McIlroy of Rodney Strong Wine Estates, Scott Johnsen of Gallo Family Vineyards and Keith Horn of Constellation Wines U.S. After the registration program is in place, growers subject to it will elect board members, according to Mr. McIlroy.

Meanwhile, the Napa-based California Land Stewardship Institute, which administers the Fish-Friendly Farming certification program and helped land federal funding last year for 10 frost reservoir projects in Mendocino County, pulled in more money to train growers on verifiable streamflow monitoring in conjunction with new county and pending state rules. The National Resource Conservation Service gave a three-year, $143,000 Conservation Innovation Grant for installation and training on stream gauges in two yet-to-be-determined Sonoma County waterways, according to institute Executive Director Laurel Marcus.

An equal amount in matching funds and in-kind donations has been provided by the grant partners, which are the farm bureaus of Sonoma and Mendocino counties, Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, Mendocino County Flood Control and Water Conservation District and Wagner & Bonsignore Consulting Civil Engineers.

About 100 growers and winery representatives attended the first informational meeting in Windsor on Jan. 11. A few more sessions are planned for February and March plus some field instruction to train growers and vineyard-management companies operating in both counties.

"It requires precision and accuracy to get it right," Ms. Marcus said. "If you do it wrong, we won't accept the data because of QA/QC requirements."

Under the Sonoma County ordinance, data from stream gauges will be reviewed by an independent science review panel led by Matt Kondolf, chairman of the U.C. Berkeley Institute for the Environment. The data from as many as 100 gauges envisioned for the program over the next three years plus comments from the panel and protected-species regulators will go to the county Agricultural Commissioner for transmission to the state water board annually.

While the monitoring budget is still being finalized to determine registration and monitoring fees for the Sonoma County frost ordinance, they could amount to $10 per acre, according to Mr. McIlroy.

However, some growers have expressed interest in donating money to the council to offset that cost, he said.