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Vineyard owners worried about potential water restrictions

  • Vineyard manager Matt Vogensen of Duff Bevill Vineyard Management inspects the growing conditions of petite syrah and cabernet grapes in Dry Creek, Wednesday Jan. 22, 2014, with a nearly empty vineyard pond in the background. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)

If the debilitating drought continues, farmers and ranchers with rights to California's creeks, rivers and lakes may be ordered to stop drawing the water that is vital to agricultural operations.

That is the message Gov. Jerry Brown sent last week in his emergency drought declaration that, among other things, put water rights holders on notice that they may be directed to cease taking surface water.

The order is a further blow to grape growers along the Russian River basin who already fear that one of the worst droughts on record will ravage their crops.

The State Water Resources Control Board is evaluating the level of waterways around the state, said John O'Hagan, the board's enforcement manager. If flows get too low, officials will tell water rights holders to turn off the tap.

"This is a fluid process," O'Hagan said. "It is happening throughout the state. We will make a determination (on curtailment) within a short time."

The curtailment will affect newer water right holders first and could continue until those with more senior water rights are told to stop taking water from rivers and creeks, he said.

The Sonoma County Water Agency, which provides Russian River water to 600,000 residents and is a senior water rights holder in the Russian River watershed, is assessing how the governor's order could affect its operations, spokesman Brad Sherwood said.

The agency has been preparing for drought since last year, the driest on record, Sherwood said.

"We fully support the governor's declaration," he said. "Our region has been proactive. We want to lead the charge on this issue."

The state water board curtailed water rights during epic droughts of 1976-77 and 1987-88, O'Hagan said. Non-compliance with the order would be met with a fine of up to $500 per day.

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