California’s Thirsty Wine-Grapes

April 17, 2015 – WILL PARRISH Ukiah – TheAVA

In the San Joaquin Valley heartland town of Livingston, located along Highway 99 between Turlock and Merced, the United States’ most lucrative wine corporation, E&J Gallo, operates the world’s largest winery: a place where serried ranks of massive, 200,000-gallon tanks tower over the surrounding countryside, in a compound ringed by security fences.

Were California its own nation, its wine industry would be the world’s fourth largest in terms of revenue. Roughly 570,000 acres in the state are under the vine, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture (which chairman, incidentally, was president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers for 13 years). And about half of that acreage is located in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, which operate in conjunction with the area’s enormous industrial wineries.

Much of this grape-based alcohol production is enabled by California’s unparalleled water infrastructure, which transmits water  from north to south, thereby turning the arid lands that supply Gallo’s oil refinery-like facility into a bountiful — and profitable — farming region. On the other side of the Coast Ranges, and further north, resides another thirsty portion where the wine industry places inordinate demand on its watersheds.

As the American wine market moved increasingly upscale in the 1990s, Sonoma County emerged as an epicenter of the “premium grape rush” due to its wide variety of favorable microclimates and soils, as well as comparatively low land prices vis-a-vis Napa County to the east. In keeping with the prevailing market trend toward high-end varietal wines, a new division of the Gallo empire — Gallo of Sonoma — amassed a collection of sprawling estates in the verdant hills ranging north to south from Cloverdale to Sonoma.

The Gallo clan aimed not only to remake their company’s image; they were intent on remaking Sonoma County’s physical terrain in that image. Throughout much of the 1990s, Gallo’s fleet of D-9 excavators rumbled across the company’s vast tracts, steel mandibles akimbo, cleaving oaks and pines and Doug firs from their root systems. Gallo owns about 6,000 acres in Sonoma County in all.

Erected in the mid-1990s, the Gallo of Sonoma Winery consists not of one wine production factory, but eight. It features not merely a large aging cellar, but one that spans the length of a football field. It is capable of producing not simply an enormous volume of wine, but 4.7 million cases of it annually — enough pinot noir, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, and merlot to fill 17 Olympic-sized swimming pools. At a cost of more than $100 million, the facility was one of the largest construction projects in the history of the California North Coast, a veritable Taj Majal to the premium wine boom.

And this facility, along with the sprawling wine-grape acreage that sustains it, relies on a massive volume of water.

As California’s historic drought lurches into a fifth year, the outsized demand that the state’s agribusiness sector places on its water resources (and water is, indeed, commonly regarded as a “resource”) is receiving greater attention. Almonds, alfalfa and pistachios have been singled out for much of the criticism, particularly because almonds command roughly 8% of California’s developed water supply and much of the overall harvest is being exported overseas.

In recent weeks, California Governor Jerry Brown has defended his decision to mandate that towns and cities slash water consumption by 25% compared to 2013 levels, while sparing those who consume the most: agribusinesses. Brown has argued that many California farmers are already facing water cutbacks because of the historic drought.

When questioned by ABC’s Martha Raddatz about the fact that agriculture uses 80% of California’s available water, while generating only about 2% of the state’s economic output, California’s governor replied: “Yeah, you bet it’s true. But by the way, they’re not watering their lawn or taking longer showers. They’re providing most of the fruits and vegetables of America.”

Vineyards are not producing a food crop that “feeds the world,” but they remain exempt from the mandatory rationing now underway in California. And they are using an amount of water that even Rodney Strong, patriarch of a famous eponymous wine label in Healdsburg, referred to as “horrendous” in a University of California Oral History interview, in which he described the introduction of irrigation techniques that increased profits and yields beginning in the early-1970s.

Since then, the Russian River basin has been altered to suit any and all individuals wishing to grow grapes. In a 2007 study, the consulting firm Stetson Engineering estimated that there are more than 800 illegal water reservoirs in the Russian River basin alone, out of a total of roughly 1,700 in the North Coast region of Marin, Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties (this includes the Eel River). The capacity of these water impoundments is 48,515 acre-feet, amounting to 3,234 surface acres of illegal reservoirs.

Extrapolating from the Stetson Engineering study, it’s likely that the Russian River has more illegal diversions than any other California river system. It’s safe to say most of the diversions are for vineyards. The diversions submerge stream reaches and headwaters, thereby drying up spawning habitat critical to fish.

As Arcata-based fisheries biologist Patrick Higgins observes, these “reservoirs are ideal habitat for bull frogs, which decimate native amphibian populations. They are often stocked with warmwater game fish that escape into water bodies below and may predate upon salmonids or displace them through competition.”

If the problem of illegal water impoundments that destroy fish and frog habitat sounds familiar, it’s probably because everyone from the County Supervisors to the local Congressman to the Department of Water Resources to the regional corporate media have been focused on the problem vis-a-vis the marijuana industry.

With respect to the wine industry, the problem has eluded attention.

Back to Gallo, which accounts for one of the Russian River’s only well-studied illegal diversions. In one case, Gallo constructed an 8.2 surface-acre pit reservoir to capture the headwaters of a Dry Creek (Russian River tributary, with much of its watershed in Mendocino County) feeder stream, located at its properties at 8900 and 9015 Westside Roads, near Healdsburg. This reservoir has a capacity of 250 acre-feet and a reported depth of 45 feet. The water was diverted from the Russian River, approximately one mile away, and pumped uphill to fill the reservoir. After it had operated for nearly two decades, the Water Board finally cracked down.

The powerful tend to set the terms of debate, and the wine industry is indeed powerful. As case after case has shown, the wine industry tends to get its way with respect to water, zoning, labor laws, subsidies, wind fans, and more. As a crude reflection of that power, Darwin Bond-Graham and I studied the wine industry’s lobbying activities and campaign contributions as compared to California’s agribusiness sector as a whole (“How Wine Rules,” AVA, July 27, 2011).

Among California agribusiness lobbying organizations, the Farm Bureau (effectively equivalent to the wine industry in Mendocino County) gave the most money to political campaigns, according to 2009-10 CA Secretary of State data. The Wine Institute of San Francisco (of which the president is none other than George W. Bush’s brother-in-law, Robert Koch) came in second. The California Association of Wine-grape Growers (CAWG) landed fourth on the list. Of agribusiness four biggest campaign donor entities, two represent the wine industry. Suffice it to say wine is possibly the largest, most coherent interest group funding North Coast and North Bay politics.

The consequences for our local water supply are enormous. More on this in the weeks to come.