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.
"My only wish is that we all work together to balance the needs of people and the environment," said David Rabbitt, the board's chairman. "I think there are better ways than sending threatening letters."
West county Supervisor Efren Carrillo also was critical, saying environmentalists and farmers should be able to "work together rather than pointing fingers and tossing lawsuits back and forth."
Still, Koball was not personally offended by the two letters he received from River Watch — one for his work at the wineries and the other related to a pond he is building on 15 acres he and his wife purchased in Ukiah.
"You need to take emotion out of the whole thing and look at your own actions," he said.
He said he's not concerned about Fetzer, Bonterra or his "teeny little vineyard" running afoul of any laws.
Silver could not provide an exact number of growers who were sent letters, but he said it was in the hundreds. Alan Levine with Coast Action Group and Larry Hanson with Forest Unlimited also signed the communications.
River Watch obtained the names of Sonoma County growers through a California Public Records Act request with the county's Agricultural Commissioner, who keeps records of growers who file frost protection management plans.
"I don't think growers are taking this too lightly," Ag Commissioner Tony Linegar said Friday.
Linegar declined to provide The Press Democrat with a list of growers whose names were obtained by River Watch and referred the matter to the county counsel.
The letters drew a mixed response from other environmental groups.