Activists see Sonoma County winegrowers’ proposed bill as a ‘water grab’

A move by Sonoma County winegrowers to form an irrigation district has alarmed environmentalists who say the proposal appears to only deal with the water needs of agriculture. (Kent Porter / PD FILE)
A move by Sonoma County winegrowers to form an irrigation district has alarmed environmentalists who say the proposal appears to only deal with the water needs of agriculture. (Kent Porter / PD FILE)

Environmentalists are mobilizing in protest of a would-be bill backed by the local wine industry that would create an irrigation district intended to protect the water rights of about 1,000 grape growers in the Russian River region.

Noting that Sonoma County is facing “urgent water supply” problems unique to the Russian River watershed, the legislation — proposed by the United Winegrowers of Sonoma County — would create a segmented district covering five viticultural areas in Alexander, Knights, Dry Creek, Russian River and Bennett valleys, which produce the county’s priciest wine grapes.

The move comes in fourth year of California’s historic drought, when competing claims for dwindling supplies and state moves to safeguard stream flows have set some rural landowners under mandatory cutbacks against grape growers who have so far faced no such restrictions.

Activists involved in the escalating debate over winery expansion and vineyards’ unlimited use of water were alarmed by a published report last month that said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, was “quietly sponsoring” the bill, and they intend to protest at McGuire’s annual town hall meeting Thursday night at the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors chambers.

McGuire said he had received a copy of the proposed bill from Bob Anderson, executive director of the United Winegrowers for Sonoma County, who handles the local wine industry’s political affairs. In response, McGuire said he advised the wine industry and environmental factions that all sides need to agree on a “collaborative solution” before he would consider carrying any legislation.

“There is no bill,” he said, noting that the deadline for filing legislation this year has passed.

McGuire said he would only consider a measure “after a robust local public process including every stakeholder at the table,” including urban and rural water users, agriculture and environmental interests.

Shepherd Bliss, a Sebastopol activist and berry farmer, said there was a “lack of transparency” in the formulation of the proposed bill to create a Russian River Irrigation District, which he said would “usurp state authority over water.”

“This is a classic water grab,” Bliss said. “In our society we should all have equal access to water.”

Anderson, who represents 250 wineries and growers, said the district is intended to represent agriculture in a groundwater management agency that Sonoma County, by state law, must establish by June 2017.

“It makes sense to me for agriculture to work to get a seat at the table,” he said. “I don’t see that we’re doing more than that.” The county should have established an irrigation district 50 years ago, Anderson said.

Local groundwater management agencies have until 2022 to develop sustainability plans intended to prevent “significant degradation” of groundwater quantity and quality, according to Marcus Trotta, a Sonoma County Water Agency hydrogeologist.

The text of the proposed bill says the district “may assist landowners, water users and water rights holders … in the acquisition and protection of water rights.” It could also help landowners “manage the diversion and use of water for purposes of vineyard and orchard frost protection.”

Uncoordinated water diversions by vineyards for frost protection and during droughts “may adversely affect the streamflow of the Russian River and its tributaries,” the bill says.

Bliss, who helped launch a protest in February over the proposed Dairyman winery project on Highway 12 between Sebastopol and Santa Rosa, said the proposed bill should have been sent “to all interested parties.”

Don McEnhill, executive director of Russian Riverkeeper who also received a copy of the bill from Anderson, said it seemed tilted toward the wine industry.

“What struck me is it pretty much carved out a place for agriculture and didn’t address those other users of water,” including rural residents who draw water from their own wells, he said.

Vineyards and homeowners “get their water from the same place,” McEnhill said, adding that all parties “should have a voice in the use of water.”

At the same time, McEnhill said there was “a lot of misinformation” circulating about McGuire’s intentions.

The proposed bill surfaced with rural residents smarting after the state last month imposed rules to reduce outdoor water use by landowners in four coho salmon breeding watersheds while placing no restrictions on vineyards. Some rural residents blame vineyard expansion — along with the drought — for diminished stream flows that have jeopardize salmon survival this summer.