North Coast growers take fight over frost rules to state high court

  • Frost in a vineyard in 2013. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

Local grape growers and farmers are taking their fight over controversial rules governing frost protection to the state’s highest court, escalating a legal battle over regulations meant to protect endangered fish in the Russian River and its tributaries.

In the first of two planned appeals, Redwood Valley grape grower Rudy Light on Friday asked the California Supreme Court to review an appellate court decision in June that upheld the state regulations, dealing a blow to opponents, who have described the rules as government overreach.

They were imposed in 2011 by the state Water Resources Control Board, which along with other agencies, said the new measures were needed to safeguard beleaguered salmon and steelhead trout populations in the Russian River. For the first time, the state required growers to track and report the water they draw out of the river system in spring to spray over their crops and protect them from frost.

The requirements were set to affect hundreds of growers across tens of thousands of acres in Sonoma and Mendocino counties. Opponents in both counties were quick to sue the state, winning a first round in court in 2012, when Mendocino County Judge Ann Moorman struck down the rules, calling them “constitutionally void” and “invalid.”

Light and another group of plaintiffs, the Russian River Water Users for the Environment, who plan to file their appeal Monday, want that lower court ruling to stand. They have assailed the June 16 decision by the state’s 1st District Court of Appeal reversing Moorman’s ruling.

“We believe it’s inconsistent with prior rulings from other appellate courts,” said Matisse Knight, a lawyer representing Rudy and Linda Light.

In her ruling, Moorman said the state water board had infringed on growers’ water rights and wrongly required farmers to gather information and create regulations themselves at great expense. She also said it appeared several factors, not just frost protection, contributed to fish deaths in the watershed.

“The trial court (judge) went to great lengths to show how she ruled to invalidate the regulation,” Knight said. “It had some sound reasoning based upon cases in place for a long time.”

In its reversal, the appellate court found the state water board had the authority to issue rules requiring grower groups to study stream flows and develop plans to manage diversions throughout the watershed. Several sections of the state’s water code give the board authority to prevent unreasonable water use, and the agency’s rule did not violate the farmers’ water rights because the affected waterways and their flows are protected under the state’s public trust doctrine, the appellate court found.

Tim Moran, spokesman for the state Water Resources Control Board, said he could not comment on the appeal because the agency had not received the petition.

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