State Water Board Begins Process of Regulating Water Diversions That Kill Salmon and Steelhead in Russian River

SAN FRANCISCO— The California State Water Resources Control Board indicated yesterday that it will move forward over the next year to draft regulations on water diversions for frost protection of vineyards in the Russian River watershed, to protect imperiled coho salmon and steelhead trout. Water Board staff recommended that any diversion of water from the Russian River and its tributaries for frost protection between March 15 and June 1, including pumping of connected groundwater, must be under the auspices of a Board-approved water-demand management program that will ensure cumulative diversions do not de-water salmon streams, and will require monitoring and public reporting of diversions in the Russian River and tributaries. The Board declined to take emergency action to implement regulations for frost pumping this spring.

“In the face of extinction of coho salmon, the state Water Board has finally taken some long-overdue baby steps to address excessive water diversions and pumping from salmon streams in the Russian River watershed, although it will be at least another year before any regulations on pumping are put in place; they may not be in time even for next year’s frost season,” said Jeff Miller, a conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Coho salmon need immediate protection to prevent de-watering streams. Another season of fish kills is unacceptable since coho are near extinction in the Russian River, and chinook and steelhead are not far behind.”

Water diversions and pumping from streams for grape growing de-water rivers and creeks where listed fish species spawn, harming imperiled coho salmon, chinook salmon, and steelhead trout. De-watering of streams occurs not only during spring and summer vineyard irrigation, but also due to winter “frost protection” pumping to protect budding grapes from frost. When freezing temperatures hit the North Coast, vineyards pumping water for frost protection can dry up portions of the Russian River and its tributaries, stranding and killing young salmon.

“The Water Board needs to take action to avoid harming the last coho salmon and steelhead trout – that is the bottom line,” said Larry Hanson of Northern California River Watch.

“Effective regulations on Russian River water diversions are long overdue. It’s been 13 years since the Water Board determined frost protection pumping is harming salmon,” said Miller. “The rules being contemplated contain some positive steps, such as regulating connected groundwater, protecting from cumulative pumping effects, and requiring adequate monitoring to determine when pumping is impacting fish. However, these rules are weaker and less protective of fish than the approach the Water Board has already adopted on the Napa River, and unauthorized ponds and diversions are not addressed. Also, success depends heavily on the criteria used by the Board to approve water-demand management programs.”

In spring 2008 and again in 2009 there were widely publicized salmon kills due to excessive water diversions in the main stem of the Russian River at Hopland and in Felta Creek, a tributary. At yesterday’s hearing, Water Board staff estimated that there were likely 20 to 30 separate frost pumping events in 2008 that could have killed salmon in the Russian River watershed, but that state and federal agencies did not have the resources to survey or document stream conditions.

“The Water Board clearly does not have the staff, the funding, or the spine for strong enforcement actions, so any regulations need to be adequately protective of the fish,” said Miller. “The benefit of the doubt should go to species about to go extinct, since Russian River water is already over-appropriated and minimum flows for fish are not being met.”

In November 2009, the Center for Biological Diversity, Northern California River Watch, and Coast Action Group notified the Water Board of their intent to sue the agency for authorizing water diversions for vineyards in Mendocino and Sonoma counties that harm federally protected salmon and steelhead.


There are at least 60,000 acres of vineyards in the Russian River watershed, 70 percent of which are within 300 feet of salmon streams. The Water Board currently permits and authorizes harmful water pumping, diversions, and water storage and continues to issue water-appropriation permits in the over-allocated Russian River watershed, in conflict with public trust values and beneficial uses. In 1997, the Water Board released a report identifying vineyard practices, particularly frost protection activities, that hurt federally listed species of fish struggling to survive in the Russian River basin and its tributaries. The National Marine Fisheries Service requested in the spring of 2009 that the Water Board adopt regulations to protect listed fish species.

The region’s significant fisheries are near extinction. Coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) on the central California coast are listed as endangered by both the state and federal governments; chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) along the California coast are federally listed as threatened; and steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) on the central California coast and Northern California are federally listed as threatened. Central California coast coho salmon are now at only 1 to 2 percent of their historical abundance. Coho have been eliminated from more than half of their historical streams in California, and in recent years, only 500 to 1,000 wild coho have returned to the entire central coast region to spawn. California coast chinook salmon have declined 97 to 99 percent from historical runs. Northern California coast steelhead have declined by 90 percent, and central California coast steelhead have declined by 80 to 90 percent in the past 50 years.

Salmon and steelhead spawn in freshwater streams and young fish require habitat with sufficient flows; deep pools; adequate food and shelter; and clean, cold water in order to survive long enough to migrate to the sea. The huge amounts of water withdrawn for grape growing dries up spawning beds and kills fish or leaves young salmon and steelhead stranded in hot and crowded shallow pools, where they are exposed to overcrowding and predators.

Grape growers have the option of pursuing permits for off-stream storage of water during high stream flows in winter, so that water is available for frost protection and the need for pumping from streams or groundwater during critical periods for salmon is eliminated. Some vineyards and grape growers have begun organizing to monitor water diversions and stream flow, and to address water pumping. These growers should be commended for trying to solve the problem. Many growers are calling for voluntary measures and self-regulation to deal with frost pumping. However, a Water Board rulemaking is necessary to ensure that the efforts of the leading growers are not thwarted by non-participants and that landowner-led solutions are effective. It is clear that even one or two diversions on a small tributary can have a significant impact on fish habitat. No voluntary plan can ensure full participation, and a strictly voluntary plan would ultimately fail to protect salmon and steelhead. An opt-in plan would also have the unintended effect of forcing the proactive growers to compete against growers that lag behind or refuse to do their fair share.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 255,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.