State water board adopts Russian River frost plan

September 20, 2011

David Downey of Downey Management was part of team that built a 50-acre pond for La Ribera Vineyards near Hopland. Such ponds are intended to store water to be used for spray frost protection instead of drawing the water directly from the Russian River or its tributaries.

State water regulators Tuesday approved a sweeping set of rules to govern how vineyard and orchard operators in the Russian River watershed use water to protect crops from springtime frost.

The rules are meant to safeguard beleaguered salmon and steelhead populations and could affect hundreds of growers and more than 21,000 acres in both Sonoma and Mendocino county.

The decision on one of the North Coast’s most contentious natural resource issues came over the continued opposition of some growers, who said the rules were unnecessary, unjustified and outside the legal authority of the state board.

Now, growers will be required to participate in a “demand management” program that tracks their water diversions for frost, records stream flows and reports the data to state and federal agencies.

The rules are set to take effect in February and be phased in over the next three years. For the first time, agricultural users must track and report their water use from March 15 through May 15, including pumping of ground water that is connected to streams.


The state Water Resources Control Board, which had been developing the rules for two years, approved them on a 3-0 vote at a hearing in Sacramento. The decision followed several lengthy hearings this year and last that pitted leaders of the region’s top-grossing wine economy against advocates seeking to restore the area’s once bountiful salmon and steelhead runs.

The standoff centers on growers’ practice of spraying their crops with water during spring cold snaps to protect the plants from frost. Concentrated diversions during those periods, federal officials say, have caused sharp drops in stream levels and been responsible for fish kills in recent years. Regulators began the push for the new rules in 2008 after they linked frost measures to fish kills on the Russian River near Hopland and on Felta Creek, a tributary.

Grower groups have hotly disputed those findings. But since then, they also have been involved in a flurry of voluntary efforts aimed at fixing the problem. In doing so, some had hoped to head off or at least minimize the need for state regulation.

That meant Tuesday’s vote was a big disappointment to some in the local wine industry. Lingering concerns from environmentalists about the strength of the new regulations, however, also mean no one walked away from the meeting fully satisfied.

“Very seldom is something that we do perfect,” said Charlie Hoppin, chairman of the state water board.

The strongest pushback Tuesday came from Mendocino County growers and interests.

They questioned the science that led federal officials to link fish kills in the watershed to frost protection, and said the regulations would derail recent efforts by growers to resolve the issue.

“They identified a problem and we went out and solved it,” said Sean White, general manager of a Mendocino County flood district and a leading voice among critics of the new rules.

He said growers in Mendocino County have spent $3.7 million in public and private grant funds in the last three years to build a dozen off-stream storage ponds and make other irrigation changes to reduce their impact on fish. No fish kills linked to frost protection have been documented since then, he said.

“They (the state board) have moved forward as if we haven’t done anything,” he said.

A pair of Mendocino County officials went further, contending that state and federal regulators had “conspired to manufacture” a need for rules they said were “unwarranted and ill-advised.” They hinted at legal challenges to the regulations. “We’re talking about additional costs on an important sector of our economy,” said Terry Gross, deputy county counsel for Mendocino County. “Put this aside. Send it back to staff and let’s take a hard look at what’s been going on.”

A study by the state board estimated economic impacts from the regulations over a 30-year lifetime at about $24 million. Individual costs to growers in Sonoma County were estimated at about $19 per acre for annual operations and $60 per acre annually for capital expenditures. In Mendocino County, those same figures were about $29 and $106, respectively. Estimated annual costs were eight to 20 times higher for a grower who would need some sort of corrective action.

Growers from both counties have grumbled about the cost of complying with the new rules.

On Tuesday, Sonoma County growers seemed much more resigned to the rules. Their comments focused more on concerns about how regulations would be implemented.

A Sonoma County frost ordinance adopted in January is likely to cover some of the initial requirements, including an inventory of frost-protected acreage, methods of diversion, and progress toward installation of additional stream flow gauges in the watershed.

But the county’s rules stopped short on the hot button issues of requiring individual growers to record and report their frost water use, a step that some growers had adamantly opposed. Now, however, they will be required to do so as part of an annual public report submitted to the state each fall.

Other details are yet to be worked out.

Grower-led organizations are seen as the most likely administrators of any local program the state would consider. Some environmentalists have criticized that arrangement, saying the management role is best left to the state. On Tuesday, they also called for a tighter check on the water rights of participating growers and more live reporting of stream data to the web.

Currently, about eight of the planned 71 stream flow gauges under the state’s plan would report live to the web, a grower representative said. Any locally run program would also be overseen by a panel of scientific advisors and have to meet a number of other state standards.

“It’s all in the implementation,” said Pete Opatz, a viticulturist who leads the Russian River Water Conservation Council, which represents local growers in talks on the issue. The rules do not apply to properties upstream of Warm Springs Dam in Sonoma County and Coyote Dam in Mendocino County.

Fish advocates who have been central in the talks said the new rules, while still unclear on some issues, would help boost efforts to restore the Russian River’s salmon and steelhead.

“Nothing’s perfect,” said Brian Johnson, a staff attorney for the group Trout Unlimited. “All in all I think the rule is workable and gives us time to develop these things. We feel this is a solid basis for going forward.”