Judge postpones frost protection rules for Russian River growers

February 2, 2012

A Mendocino County judge on Thursday postponed the state’s new rules on frost protection until grape growers who filed a lawsuit challenging the rules have their day in court.

Rudy and Linda Light, who own a small family vineyard in Redwood Valley on a tributary to the west fork of the Russian River, filed the lawsuit in October to challenge the frost protection regulations enacted by the state Water Resources Control Board last fall.

The ruling by Mendocino County Superior Court Judge Ann Moorman delayed enforcement of the new regulations, a decision that lawyers say will apply to all grape growers in the Russian River watershed.

“Everybody who was concerned about the regulation benefits from it,” said Matisse M. Knight, a Ukiah lawyer who represented the plaintiffs. “The board can’t enforce that regulation. And that’s not exclusive to the Lights.”

State water regulators urged growers Thursday to voluntarily comply with the controversial rules while the courts resolve two legal challenges filed by growers in Sonoma and Mendocino counties. Such actions would demonstrate that growers are taking precautionary steps to protect endangered species, said Kathie Smith, spokeswoman for the State Water Resources Control Board.

“The State Water Board is currently reviewing the court’s ruling,” Smith said in a statement. “However, this is not a ruling on the merits of the case, it is simply a ruling on whether the regulations are enforceable prior to trial.”

The new state regulations are designed to protect young salmon from becoming stranded when water levels in the Russian River and its tributaries are low.

The rules target grape growers who divert water from the watershed for frost protection, spraying the vines with water when the air temperature threatens to dip below freezing. The practice helps the temperature remain constant and reduces the chance of crop loss.

The state required such growers to submit water demand management plans and measure the cumulative effects of their water use on the river, at a cost that could hurt some farmers.

If growers didn’t comply with the regulations by March 15, they were prohibited from spraying their vines with water.

With frost season looming, the judge said that enforcing the new rules could cause “permanent damage” to growers while they challenge the legality of the regulations in court.

Light, who filed the Mendocino lawsuit, is no stranger to water rules and conservation. His organic vineyard, Light Vineyards, was certified by the “Fish Friendly Farming” program in 2002. And in recent years he planted thousands of oak trees and completed a major restoration of the west fork of the Russian River.

“It’s not a matter of the grape growers don’t like fish or the environment,” Light said. “And we are very committed environmentalists.

“At the same time, I just felt from the beginning that the water board overstepped its authority,” Light continued. “They’ve taken over a legislative function and assumed that authority for themselves.”

In addition to the vineyard, Light owns about 1,800 acres of property in Mendocino County, and served on the Mendocino County Fish and Game Commission for nearly a decade.

The trial in Light’s case is set to begin on March 23.

Meanwhile, a judge in Sacramento ruled on a related lawsuit filed by Russian River Water Users for the Environment, a group of grape growers from Sonoma and Mendocino counties. The state water board had sought to transfer Light’s case to the Sacramento court, combining his suit with the Russian River Water Users for the Environment case. Instead, Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Timothy M. Frawley ruled the opposite, writing that both cases should be consolidated and transferred to the Mendocino County Superior Court.

“One of the most important things that comes out of this is nobody is going to go off and launch into these extremely expensive water demand management programs until a court resolves whether it is even lawful,” said Nick Jacobs, a Sacramento attorney representing Russian River Water Users for the Environment.

The Sonoma County Winegrape Commission still plans to hold a series of upcoming meetings to talk with growers about the new regulations, said Nick Frey, president.

“I don’t know exactly how it will all turn out,” Frey said. “Will the state appeal? And if they do appeal, will they prevail? The scenarios are a little hard to predict at this point.”

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