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Environmentalists' warning irks grape growers

  • Sprinklers coat a Russian River Valley vineyard with water in an effort to protect the vines from freezing temperatures. The practice has come under fire because of the potential harm to fish habitats caused by drawing down Russian River water. (KENT PORTER / The Press Democrat, 2010)

North Coast grape growers are weeks away from having to make crucial decisions about how much water to use for frost protection, but already are facing what is widely interpreted as a threat of being sued by environmental groups over potential harm to fish habitats.

Three Sonoma County organizations, including one with a long history of filing lawsuits, sent letters to hundreds of growers and vineyard managers in Sonoma and Mendocino counties outlining concerns about water draw-downs harming federally protected salmon and steelhead.

The four-page letter notes that many vineyard managers are “working diligently” to prevent extinction of fish species. But it also addresses concerns about placing “profit above compliance with the law” and states growers who are “known” to violate federal law will be publicly identified on the website for California River Watch, or sued by the organization.

Sebastopol-based River Watch has a controversial history of suing companies, cities, sanitation districts and individuals for environmental reasons. But Jack Silver, an attorney who founded the organization in 1996, said Friday the letters sent to growers should not be viewed as a threat of litigation.

“I understand farmworkers don't like someone telling them their business, but at the same time, if they're not violating the law, they shouldn't be looking at this as a threat,” he said.

But many growers, who feel pressured by historic drought conditions to save their crops while also protecting the environment, took exception to the letters, which were mailed earlier this month.

“People are upset and probably insulted because of the work we've done and the leadership we've shown,” said David Koball, vineyard director for Fetzer and Bonterra wineries in Mendocino County.

Several members of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors denounced the letters this week.

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