Tribe taps Sonoma County wineries, farms to save Russian River water
To hear water stakeholders tell their stories, the connection to the Russian River is every bit as personal and spiritual as it is professional in nature.
Take, for instance, Dry Creek Rancheria Tribal Chairman Chris Wright.
The Pomo Indians tribal leader is spearheading a major grant-funded, multi-million-dollar, drought-resistant water capture plan. He hopes it will spark interest from Healdsburg-area wineries and farms in a 7,000-acre area to help with the water supply that keeps the Russian River economic microcosm going.
The benefits are threefold — from water consumers and fisheries to wineries and other agriculture businesses at “ground zero” in the valley.
And the stakes are high, as drought periods have turned up over the past few decades, prompting concern among local farmers and water agencies. Even after big winters like what the North Bay just experienced with more than 50 inches of rain recorded in Santa Rosa, agencies from the U.S. Geological Survey to the California Department of Water Resources warn of commercial and residential users becoming complacent.
They recommend programs that best utilize the 850 million acre-feet in the state’s total water storage capacity. The amount is the equivalent to about the size of seven Lake Tahoes. According to state water resources, the Central Valley has lost 100 million acre feet from 1961 to 2003.
Here at home, about 160,000 acre feet was depleted from the supply from 1975 to 2010 in Sonoma County’s Santa Rosa Groundwater Subbasin.
With the exception of this past blockbuster winter, that flow has been little more than a trickle at times, causing sleepless nights for hydrologists as well as businesses and other entities that live on the land.
The Dry Creek Rancheria manages 140 acres of wine grapes itself within the project area’s eight districts.
“I grew up in Healdsburg — running the river with my dad,” he said, reminiscing about decades ago when celebrities, including rock bands, would show up by the hundreds to run and frolic along the 110-mile-long river known for rafting, kayaking and floating.
For many winters, the rain has failed to show up. Through the years, the river has diminished like some of its inhabitants, including the endangered coho salmon.
“We’ve been lucky this year with the rain,” Wright said.
But the declaration comes with a tempered warning that this past winter’s water deluge may not repeat itself — even with a building El Nino, the tropical weather phenomenon based offshore from South America that traditionally delivers a wetter San Francisco Bay Area across to the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range.
Enter the Alexander Valley community’s more than $20 million “On-Farm Recharge Initiative” planned for completion by 2030.
In essence, the phased-in project aims to replenish the groundwater basin with up to 9,000-acre feet of water savings annually, when the Russian River increases to high flows. Traditionally, that stormwater runoff represents a wasted supply.
Instead, ag stakeholders like the tribe want to capture that excess. The idea is to take the winter water from November to March to raise the water table and park it in the ground to “recharge,” or replenish, the shallow groundwater aquifer.
This is defined as layers of gravel and sand and serves as storage to use in dry periods.
Call it a water insurance plan of sorts.
The principle behind the project lies in grabbing the “excess surface water and putting it into the ground for later use,” said Philip Bachand, the tribe’s public works subcontractor on the project.
In a double-duty approach, the wineries and farms will run their surface water systems to send both sources of water (irrigation and stormwater from the river) into the aquifer that holds that groundwater.
“There’s a big push by the (California) Department of Resources to better integrate the surface water and groundwater,” Bachand said.
The concern of having enough water was heightened by a pre-winter, three-year drought, when the state’s drought map was blanketed with those conditions to varying degrees. Now, only about 12% of the state is experiencing minor levels of drought as of mid-May.
Beyond utilizing the wineries’ own irrigation systems, the infrastructure running between the nearby river and those farms along Highway 128 needs to be built.
For the first phase, the tribe secured $7 million in funding in March from state water resources on an Urban and Multibenefit Drought Relief grant it applied for three years ago. It intends to finish the initial phase encompassing about 1,800 acres by 2025.
While it’s also tapping the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs for funding to build the connecting pipelines, agreements between the tribe and the 100 participating wineries and farms identified within the total project area will be drafted, the tribe indicated.