A drought defying description: How California North Coast businesses are stepping up to the challenge
Call it either “severe” or “exceptional” drought grips three quarters of the West. And the North Bay suffers. Well drilling is up, water trucks are in high demand and one community offers regular trucked in supplies to its residents to meet conservation targets. In the four-county area, here are ways the drought is having an impact on business and its customers
Herds culled, river shrinks
On Aug. 10, state regulators expanded their drought-era halt of Russian River diversions, ordering more than 300 additional grape growers, ranchers and other landowners to cease taking water from the basin as authorities seek to conserve rapidly diminishing reservoir supplies and meager stream flows. An earlier order had already curtailed water draws for more than 1,500 water rights holders, The Press Democrat reported.
Taking effect Aug. 11, the latest restrictions cover a range of Sonoma County water right holders in southern portion of the watershed, known as the lower river, though many are located in the Dry Creek Valley and other tributary areas around the middle reaches.
For agriculture the drought has resulted in tapping additional resources as well as reducing livestock herds, according to Tawney Tesconi, executive director of Sonoma County Farm Bureau.
“Farmers north of Healdsburg have brought wells back into operation to tap ground water or have resorted to dry farming and leaving fields fallow. Some members of the agriculture community are using holding pond water with liners to reduce evaporation and deploying rubber water bladders for storage.”
She also said herds of dairy cows, beef cattle and sheep have been reduced along with a decrease in crops from vegetable farmers due to a lack of water.
Water restrictions and the wine industry
Harvest of some varieties began in the North the week of Aug. 6. The Journal reported growers had taken some actions to deal with a lack of rain fall.
Glenn Proctor, a partner in wine and grape brokerage Ciatti Co. in San Rafael, said the outlook now for this year’s wine grape crop in the North Coast is “early and light.”
“It seems that on some of the early picks, clusters are not weighing a lot, and that is probably a function of berry size and berry number,” Proctor said. Well-watered vines tend to produce bigger grape berries and more of them per cluster. “(We’re) also hearing more reports of growers being affected by the water restrictions, which are continuing to be more severe during the summer.”
Despite restrictions have been in place to ban taking water from Sonoma County’s Russian River as lakes recede and river flows decline to extremely low levels with no rain in sight, many wineries in the area not directly affected, one wine group executive stated.
“Most of our grape growers do not draw water out of the Russian River, even under normal conditions,” said Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers.
Instead, she said most vines are irrigated by local, naturally replenished groundwater and off-stream reservoirs that collect rain and surface water during times of high flow to conserve water and protect other aquatic resources.
She said while wine grapes are a very water efficient crop, requiring only half as much water as other crops like, apples, cherries, peaches and pears, local grape growers and farmers, along with the community, are very worried about the impact of water shortages and drought.
“Over the past few months, grape growers have stepped up monitoring of soil moisture and are scaling back water use for minimal maintenance of overall vine health, especially in young vines. Green growth is being closely managed and tillage options are being evaluated to remove competition for water in the soil,” said Kruse.
Bret Munselle, who farms 300 acres of wine grapes in Alexander Valley with his father, Bill, and another 400 acres for different clients, told The Press Democrat he's still not entirely sure what restrictions on taking water from the river will mean.
He said he still has access to some low-capacity groundwater wells, though they are highly inefficient, but already has cut his harvest goals and water use enough to cut his water use by 50% this year. He added that he hopes to get the grapes for white varietals harvested by early Sept. without a lot of trouble, since the fruit is generally watered little in its final weeks. The reds may be trickier, since they mature later.
"This is like trial by error — just doing your best," Munselle told the newspaper.