Frost-pond bill passes; regulators float frost-water rule

By Jeff Quackenbush, Business Journal Staff Reporter

Frost Pond

The Legislature passed a bill by two North Coast state assemblymen that would streamline permitting of small irrigation ponds that could be tapped for frost prevention, rather than streams deemed habitat for protected fish. Meanwhile, state water regulators released the latest revision to a Russian River basin frost-water regulation more than three years in the making.

The Assembly on Aug. 31 voted 70-0 on AB 964, authored by Assemblymen Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) and Wes Chesbro (D-Eureka). The Senate passed it 31-0 on Aug. 22. Now, the governor is considering the bill.

On Sept. 1, the State Water Resources Control Board released a draft rule for the timing, quantity and methods for diverting Russian River tributary water, including hydrologically connected groundwater, for use in spraying on crops to protect them from frost damage. A Sonoma County frost-water ordinance took effect June 1.

A significant change from the first draft of the state rule in May includes a provision for property owners to have three years to prove their wells aren’t tapping water connected to the tributaries.

Comments are due at noon Sept. 16, and a hearing is set for Sept. 20 at 9 a.m. in Sacramento. Send comments to Jeanine Townsend, Clerk to the Board,
State Water Resources Control Board,
P.O. Box 100, Sacramento, CA 95812-2000;
(subject: “Comment Letter — Russian River Frost Protection Regulation”); or fax 916-341-5620. Details are posted here.

The debate over water rights and the ability for winegrape growers to access enough water to protect vineyards from devastating frost damage has been raging for more than two decades. It reached a crescendo in 2008, when about a month of frosty nights left growers with empty irrigation ponds and the simultaneous tapping of rivers and creeks are blamed for a few incidents of killed juvenile fish.

Advocates for protected fish have accused growers and other users of the region’s waterways of taking too much water out and leaving the fish without enough. Agriculture groups have been lobbying for a fix to the state’s water-rights permitting system to allow many small off-stream reservoirs to be built to use mainly rainfall collected during wet months for spraying on vines as nighttime temperatures drop below freezing.

AB 964 taps into the existing water rights registration process for small ponds for rural homes and livestock. The bill adds the “small irrigation” uses such as frost protection to the registration process, as long as the pond project uses less than 20 acre-feet of water per year. Vineyard owners would be able to pursue registration for the ponds rather than the more complicated water rights application process.

Assemblyman Huffman said streamlining the approval of these projects will help many vineyard owners move their frost protection diversions to these small off-stream ponds instead of from streams.

He noted an additional benefit in helping to clear the backlog of water rights applications at the State Water Resources Control Board. One-quarter of the board’s pending water rights applications are for projects using less than 20 acre-feet annually, Assemblyman Huffman said.

Backing the bill was a coalition pulled together by Trout Unlimited and the Wine Institute in drafting this important legislation. The water board provided technical advice.

Under the bill, the water board would have until June 30 of next year to come up with the small-irrigation registration process.