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.

Participation in Phase One will require easements and time and assistance from businesses involved. Jackson Family Wineries is already on board to support advancing the first phase.

“What’s nice is the diversity of the community coming together (in this project),” Jackson Director of Environmental Compliance Susanne Zechiel said, while out amid the dormant vineyard block a few months ago along the major thoroughfare from Healdsburg to Calistoga.

She was joined by an independent government environmental project coordinator, Adriane Garayalde, along with Sonoma Water hydrologist Marcus Trotta to discuss the massive, critical undertaking.

“This area is at risk with climate change. We want to maintain our groundwater in case of a deficiency,” Garayalde said.

Using novel new concepts with nature’s constant pursuit of the past is what water managers are counting on. In respect to controlling water flows, humankind uses its intelligence for new solutions, but nature will always want to correct what appears to go against the natural flows.

“This was all a flood plain at one time,” Garayalde said, glancing around at the sweeping landscape that makes Alexander Valley so unique. “And anything we can do up here will benefit us down the river.”

Down the road, Silver Oak Cellars’ Vineyard Manager Brad Petersen said he eagerly awaits the phase among the five that involves his winery. He sees the project as a model for the state.

“This project fits in with Silver Oak’s sustainability goals. It certainly is positive,” he said. “In 2021, it was really concerning. We can’t plant, and then there’s no water. There’s going to be a dire need in the future.”

Expanding water reserves

“Water management needs to be an ongoing thing,” Jon Traum, a hydrologist at the USGS California Water Science Center, told the North Bay Business Journal.

“This is the way California is going to move forward in the future. We got to get (water) into the ground in any way,” Traum said, calling the 10-year-old “recharge” concept as “fairly new.”

Water managers in California’s farm-rich Central Valley have adopted many plans of flooding alfalfa fields in order to tap into an ample water supply year-round by using groundwater and surface water from rain.

“We need both,” Traum said.

Tim Godwin, a hydrologist and geologist with the state Department of Water Resources, agreed.

“We pump more water than we replenish,” he said, adding his view the human-made groundwater solutions boost Mother Nature’s efforts.

Godwin applauds the initiative by Alexander Valley water stakeholders using proposition funding under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Grant Program in which $317 million has been allocated among 108 recharge projects identified across California.

Sonoma County joins the pact

The county also has entered the scene with money and direction for more water solutions, approving a regional initiative on May 16 to create the Russian River Confluence. The umbrella organization is tasked with promoting collaboration among stakeholders along the river that’s fed by 238 streams and creeks in the watershed within Mendocino and Sonoma counties.

Sonoma County’s Board of Supervisors pledged $1.1 million to improve the water resource management in the Alexander Valley. The funding will be earmarked for environmental assessments and addressing erosion concerns.

Erosion is the enemy of best management practices that control water flows, experts said.

“The Russian River watershed is a critical resource for all of us, and it is time for all of us to work together to ensure it remains vibrant, not just for current residents, but for future generations,” said Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose county district represents the lower Russian River.

Marin and Napa counties have not identified water recharge programs, but the latter indicated it was “planning to investigate the possibility in the next few years,” Napa’s spokeswoman Linda Ong said.

Marin’s geology “doesn’t lend itself” to aquifer projects, county officials insisted.

Susan Wood covers law, cannabis, production, tech, energy, transportation, agriculture as well as banking and finance. She can be reached at 530-545-8662 or

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