Farmers work to protect grapes, river levels

Steve Adler, April 24, 2013

Winegrape growers within the Russian River watershed came through the first night of freezing temperatures with flying colors last week, as their sprinkler diversions for frost protection of vulnerable spring vine growth resulted in very little drop in river flow levels.

Farmers work to protect grapes, river levels

The issue involves farmers in Mendocino and Sonoma counties, who occasionally use sprinkler systems to protect grapes and pears from frost, and state and federal regulators who say the frost-protection measures pull too much water from the Russian River and its tributaries, thereby endangering protected salmon and steelhead.

“We had our first real frost event so far this year, and while it was not a large-magnitude event, it was an awesome first opportunity for us to really check everything that we put in place. I was super thrilled with the outcome,” said Sean White, manager of the Russian River Flood Control District in Mendocino County.

Farmers in the watershed have taken a number of steps in response to concerns about river levels, such as installing wind machines and creating offstream ponds to use for frost protection, rather than drawing water directly from the river during a frost.

White said frost-protection activities last week created what amounted to an insignificant change in river flows on the Russian River, even though an estimated 70 percent of winegrape growers had turned on their sprinklers to protect vines from freezing temperatures.

The practice of using sprinklers to provide a protective covering to new vine shoots has been at the center of a dispute that began following a series of unusually frigid nights in the spring of 2008. Government biologists said water diversions by farmers resulted in two instances of stranding young salmon that are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Based upon these two instances, the biologists argued that water diversions reduced flows in the river and its tributaries, and extrapolated that a larger number of young salmon had also been stranded. Those arguments led the State Water Resources Control Board to adopt a regulation in 2011 that would have severely restricted water use for frost protection between March 15 and May 15, the months in which grapevines emerge from winter dormancy and are most vulnerable to frost damage.

The regulations would have gone into effect in March 2012, but were stalled when Mendocino County Superior Court Judge Ann Moorman issued a preliminary injunction delaying implementation, pending the result of a combined trial that involved two challenges to the regulation filed by farmers.

Since that time, Judge Moorman has issued two rulings that favored the farmers. In her first ruling, handed down last fall, the judge determined that the new frost-protection regulations imposed by the State Water Resources Control Board were unconstitutional.

Then, this March, she rejected the environmental impact report that served as the foundation for the proposed regulation. Moorman said the EIR failed to take into account the impact on stream levels of other Russian River water users, such as the Sonoma County Water Agency.

Devon Jones, executive director of the Mendocino County Farm Bureau, described the two rulings as encouraging for growers in the two counties.

“This has been very positive for us to this point, but the State Water Resources Control Board has just filed an appeal of the Superior Court decisions,” Jones said. “Now, we have to get together and figure out our next steps in this process.”

Jones noted there was a February meeting involving winegrape growers in the two counties to discuss the upcoming frost season. The purpose of the meeting was to remind farmers that water use restrictions remain in place despite Moorman’s two rulings, and that it is important to use water wisely.

“We want to make sure everyone understands their water use requirements and that they keep good records and documentation, because they still have to report it. We still have the Endangered Species Act, so if there is a significant issue, there is still the hammer in the toolbox to go after folks,” she said.

Sonoma County winegrape grower Al Cadd, president of the Russian River Property Owners Association, said grapevines came through the winter in great shape, and if the weather holds, it looks like there will be a fair crop again this year.

“Growers are using much less water now than we did years ago when we used to overhead irrigate. When I grew apples here on the ranch, we used a lot more water than growing winegrapes. It costs money to pump the water and we don’t do it unless we have to,” he said.

Sonoma County winegrape grower Pete Opatz noted that farmers in both counties have been actively upgrading their irrigation systems, creating offstream water storage ponds and installing wind machines to address the concerns.

“The activities that have taken place since 2008—multiple wells and wind machines, additional storage ponds and reservoirs—have resulted in millions of dollars’ worth of frost infrastructure upgrades having been spent by the growers. All of this is focusing on river levels,” he said.

“And there has been monitoring of water levels since 2009, so not only do we have our experiences to draw on, we have ongoing monitoring. So we are pretty keen on what areas could be impacted with frost-protection systems,” Opatz said.

Reflecting back on all that has happened since those freezing nights in the spring of 2008, Jones stressed that, “We want to be able to continue to farm, but we want to sustain the fisheries as well.”

White agreed, commenting that “the legal fight was never what we wanted. What we wanted to do was fix the problem, not litigate it.”