Vineyard erosion rules effort restarts

As state water-quality regulators prepare to try again this fall with a framework designed to control erosion into the Napa River and Sonoma Creek watersheds, winegrape growers in those areas are getting new tools to help prepare for the as-yet-undefined rules.

San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board staff plan to issue notice by the end of June about the preparation of draft environmental-impact documents connected to general wastewater discharge requirements (WDRs) for vineyard operations in those watersheds, according to Naomi Feger, chief of the regional board's planning division.

"We will be looking at the regulations that exist in Napa and Sonoma (counties)," she said. "They will not be in conflict."

The goal is to hold the first scoping meeting in Napa in mid-July then compile comments from that gathering and those received during the crafting of a conditional waiver of WDRs for vineyards in the two watersheds, an effort that ended in March of last year amid opposition. The current timeline is to release a draft environmental document for the vineyard WDRs in late fall and convene the first public hearings in the first quarter of next year, Ms. Feger said.

The WDRs in the works build on Bay water board work over more than a dozen years to define total maximum daily loads, or TMDLs, for sediment and pathogens in the Napa River and Sonoma Creek watersheds. Board staff in early 2010 started working toward the conditional waiver framework, under which an owner or property manager would enroll, develop a farm water-quality management plan based on the highest historical runoff from the property then keep the farm plan up to date for planned projects and changing condition.

Some environmental-protection groups objected to what they deemed to be self-policing aspects of the waiver by allowing the use of third-party verification of farm plans rather than through the regulatory process. Farming groups objected to the draft farm plan rules, calling them too burdensome and bureaucratic.

To help avoid conflicts between stringent local erosion regulations such as those in Napa and Sonoma counties and those from third-party certification programs, Bay board staff has been in talks with county staff and resource management agencies such as the resource conservation districts (RCDs) of both counties and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Ms. Feger said.

"There will be certification through third-party programs as part of the permit, and we're working with people involved to make sure their programs meet our requirements," she said.

Certification programs being considered are Fish Friendly Farming (called Napa Green Land in that county), the Code of Sustainable Winegrowing, Sustainability in Practice and the LandSmart program by the Sonoma RCD in conjunction with the Napa County RCD.

Sonoma RCD on June 10 said it received $275,000 in two grants from the State Water Resources Control Board for the LandSmart for Vineyards program ( to create up to 35 farm plans for Sonoma Valley growers.

Because there are more growers than that, the district is preparing workshops, set for July 8, 17 and Aug. 7, and an open-source, or template, farm plan to help growers develop their own plans. These LandSmart plans are designed to help landowners note which recognized best management practices (BMPs) they are using. A similar workshop and template program helped North Coast dairy farmers prepare their plans, according to Valerie Minton, Sonoma RCD program director.

"When the (vineyard) regulations are in place, there will be many who need to comply," she said.

Template farm plans, which allow vineyard owners to complete and update their plans more cost-effectively, are what Bay water board staff are encouraging in the forthcoming WDRs, Ms. Feger said.

Building coalitions and developing template plans that have cost-effective approaches to achieving regulator goals also has worked for various agricultural groups elsewhere in the state, according to Scott Greenwood-Meinert, an environmental law attorney for Dickenson, Peatman & Fogarty in Napa and a consultant to the Napa County Farm Bureau environmental committee.

While the local RCDs and other ag trade groups are working from the more than a decade of discussions that went into the failed vineyard waiver for what is coming in the draft vineyard WDRs, there were a number of issues left unresolved when that process ended, Mr. Greenwood-Meinert said. Among the lingering questions for him are why vineyard activities are being singled out for regulation, whether a "road" includes tracks through vine vineyards for crews' all-terrain vehicles or is just an improved road, whether farm plans are subject to public-records requests and the need for documentation outside of California Environmental Quality Act reports required by local governments on vineyard projects.

North Coast vineyard operations already are some of the most environmentally conscious agriculture in the world, he stressed.

"I don't think anyone knows how expensive these plans are going to be," he said.

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