The Legislature today passed a bill by two North Coast state legislators that would streamline permitting of small irrigation ponds that could be tapped for frost prevention, rather than streams deemed habitat for protected fish.

The Assembly today voted 70-0 on AB 964, authored by Assemblymen Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) and Wes Chesbro (D-Eureka). The Senate passed it Aug. 22 on a 31-0 vote. Now, the bill is headed to the governor's desk for consideration.

The debate over water rights and the ability for winegrape growers to access enough water to protect vineyards from devastating frost damage has been raging for more than two decades. It reached a crescendo in 2008, when about a month of frosty nights left growers with empty irrigation ponds and the simultaneous tapping of rivers and creeks is blamed for a few incidents of killed juvenile fish.

Advocates for protected fish have accused growers and other users of the region's waterways of taking too much water out and leaving the fish without enough. Agriculture groups have been lobbying for a fix to the state's water-rights permitting system to allow many small off-stream reservoirs to be built to use mainly rainfall collected during wet months for spraying on vines as nighttime temperatures drop below freezing.

AB 964 taps into the existing water rights registration process for small ponds for rural homes and livestock. The bill adds the "small irrigation" uses such as frost protection to the registration process, as long as the pond project uses less than 20 acre-feet of water per year. Vineyard owners would be able to pursue registration for the ponds rather than the more complicated water rights application process.

Assemblyman Huffman said streamlining the approval of these projects will help many vineyard owners move their frost protection diversions to these small off-stream ponds instead of from streams.

He noted an additional benefit in helping to clear the backlog of water rights applications at the State Water Resources Control Board. One-quarter of the board’s pending water rights applications are for projects using less than 20 acre-feet annually, Assemblyman Huffman said.

“This bipartisan legislation shows that we don’t have to accept the false choice of fish vs. wine on the North Coast -- there are creative solutions that can protect salmon streams while respecting the need for growers to protect their premium winegrapes from frost,” he said.

Backing the bill was a coalition pulled together by Trout Unlimited and the Wine Institute in drafting this important legislation. The water board provided technical advice.

“This bill will help salmon and steelhead by making it easier for grape growers to redesign their frost water diversions,” said Brian Johnson, director of Trout Unlimited’s California Water Project.

Under the bill, the water board would have until June 30 of next year to come up with the small-irrigation registration process.