[caption id="attachment_44879" align="alignleft" width="350" caption="Beckstoffer Vineyards' Rich Schaefers at the Hopland irrigation and frost pond under construction in 2009"][/caption]

HOPLAND -- Conversions of former pear orchards in Mendocino County to grapevines is nothing new and construction of sizable off-stream ponds to collect winter stream runoff for spring vine frost protection is gaining momentum with new state and local rules, but one major North Coast winegrape grower's project to do both adds a new element, dedicating a majority of historical water rights back to the stream.

Rutherford-based Beckstoffer Vineyards applied in January to the State Water Resources Control Board for permits to draw water from a Russian River tributary during rainy months to fill existing and planned off-stream ponds on a 320-acre former pear orchard near Hopland the Rutherford-based company acquired a few years ago. A 67 acre-foot pond for irrigation and frost-protection of 155 acres of existing vines was constructed in 2009 at a cost of $500,000. A 70 acre-foot pond would be constructed for 165 acres of vines to be planted in the next four years, according to the application. One acre-foot of water contains 326,000 gallons.

But Beckstoffer proposed to reduce the maximum volume of water it's allowed to divert from the river under existing water right licenses and riparian claims from 1,200 acre-feet to 870 acre-feet and limit the highest rate of total diversion from 30 cubic feet per second to nine. Beckstoffer wants to "dedicate" 20.1 cubic feet per second of water-flow rights back to the river.

"The purpose of the application is to modify existing operations in a manner that is beneficial to the environment and public trust resources," according to the notice of application from state water board staff on Sept. 13.

"It's an example of looking for creative ways to save fish and give back to the environment, but sometimes regulations make it difficult to do this," said Rich Schaefers, general manager of Mendocino County operations.

Beckstoffer is tapping into Section 1707 of the state Water Code, enacted in 1991 and amended in 1999. It allows holders of appropriative, riparian and other water rights to transfer those rights temporarily, such as a seasonal lease, or permanently through dedication to preserve or enhance wetlands or waterways for species protection and recreation.

Few Section 1707 petitions have been granted, mainly to large transfers related to releases from reservoirs in the San Joaquin River and Delta. But in the past few years, the Scott River Water Trust secured six lease-transfers for small-scale users and has one pending, but that took five years and more than $30,000 in attorney and engineer fees to complete, according to Sari Sommerstrom, Ph.D., executive director of the Scott River Water Trust.

Another recent use of Section 1707 is the Pine Gulch Creek Enhancement Project, which feeds Bolinas Lagoon in west Marin. It's a cooperative effort among three certified-organic farmers, state and federal regulators and resource agencies as well as conservation groups such as Trout Unlimited.

"The downside is the transaction cost associated with this can be intimidating, and I believe that is largely a function of not a lot of people having done this and agencies still working out the kinks. Having examples like the project in Marin County and Beckstoffer will help," said Brian Johnson of Trout Unlimited. "Another downside is people could be resistant to giving up something, especially something as emotionally charged as a water right."

A big challenge is backing up the water transfers legally, according to Dr. Sommerstrom.

"1707 looks great on paper, and it has legal protections, but you need an entity," she said. Like the Napa River, the Scott River has a watermaster who oversees how much is diverted from the waterway and when.