North Coast farmers face new state, federal water rules

Whether water is gushing in North Coast waterways or not, farmers in the region are facing proposed state and federal rules aimed at ensuring that there's enough water above and below ground during dry spells such as the current drought and that runoff when the rains return doesn't harm protected species.

A rulemaking effort a decade and a half in the making is San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Board's permitting system for controlling erosion from vineyards into Napa River and Sonoma Creek watersheds. And after two decades of discussion, debate, enforcement actions and stop-and-start regulation efforts on how Russian River watershed water can be used, particularly for protecting vines and other crops on frosty nights, legal challenges to the State Resources Control Board's North Coast Instream Flow Policy are working through appeals courts.

In a related matter at the regional level, there are drought water-use curtailment orders for use of water from upper Russian River because of the low levels of Mendocino and Sonoma lakes. Also gaining urgency during the drought is legislation in Sacramento to manage and develop groundwater resources.

At the federal level, Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers this past spring proposed definitions for the "waters of the United States" clause, or "WOTUS," that specifies Clean Water Act jurisdiction. While farming remains exempt from certain Clean Water Act permits, it could now need other permits for routine operations, according to trade groups.

On the Sonoma Creek and Napa River vineyard erosion rules effort, San Francisco Bay water board staff are preparing environmental-impact documents on general wastewater discharge requirements, or WDRs, for vineyards, after scrapping a vineyard conditional waiver effort early last year.

Board staff released a 79-page initial study of proposed general WDRs for vineyard operations on July 7 and held a scoping meeting in Napa on July 23. The goal is garner new comments to combine with input from the waiver effort into a draft environmental impact report on the proposed rules. The target is to release the draft in late fall and hold public hearings early next year. The forthcoming rules would encompass an estimated 141,400 acres of vineyard properties with 69,000 planted acres of vines in the two watersheds, according to the study.

Though the final rules haven't been released, farming groups see indications in the direction of them from the study. But Naomi Feger, chief of the regional board’s planning division, told the Business Journal in June that vineyard WDRs "will not be in conflict" with existing erosion-control regulations overseen by the counties of Napa and Sonoma.

[caption id="attachment_95759" align="alignleft" width="202"] Jim Lincoln[/caption]

Of concern in the initial study for Jim Lincoln, a southern Napa Valley manager for Beckstoffer Vineayrds and chairman of Napa County Farm Bureau's National Resources Committee, are the size of vineyard properties needing to submit plans for erosion management, duplication of documentation efforts and erosion-control upgrades of of roads on the property. He's been following this rule-making effort since discussions started in 1999 of regulations of total maximum daily load, or TMDLs, of sediment into the watersheds, limits that the board adopted six years ago.

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