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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.

Don McEnhill, executive director of Russian Riverkeeper, a conservation nonprofit agency, said he interpreted the letters as "mostly being helpful in providing information and alerting the growers" that they are being watched. He said that strategy is "better than waiting until after a fish kill and then filing a lawsuit."

He said the Riverkeeper's board of directors opted for a different strategy, which is "engaging directly with the industry."

"The environmental community needs to make a good-faith effort to reach out to the industry and address their problems in a positive way," McEnhill said.

Victoria Brandon, chairwoman of the Redwood Chapter of the Sierra Club, said the organization would never threaten to sue without the intention of actually doing so.

"I would never put that in a letter without firm legal backing or plans to follow through with it," she said.

Silver, however, made the case that groups such as River Watch are providing enforcement actions that state and federal agencies are incapable of because of staffing shortages.

The environmental group most recently settled with the Town of Windsor for alleged violations of the Clean Water Act related to sewer overflows and leaks. As part of the agreement, the town is paying River Watch $45,000 in attorney's fees.

In past lawsuits, River Watch defendants also have agreed to fund small environmental restoration projects, water testing programs and studies documenting the health of waterways.

The letter to growers encourages people to report potential violations of the Endangered Species Act to any number of organizations, including the Sonoma County District Attorney's Office or state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

"We're not intending to file a lawsuit. We're trying to get agencies to bring actions," Silver said.

Levine, with Coast Action, said the message is to "encourage people to be good," and to employ better water-use techniques, although none are specified in the letters. Levine gave as an example growers taking water only when it is plentiful and to store it for future use.

"I would hope the letter would encourage that, but some people just don't want to go there," he said.

Many growers say they already are taking such measures.

Doug McIlroy, director of winegrowing at Rodney Strong Wine Estates, said the letters are "telling us what we already know."

The wine industry has been motivated to change its water ways in part because of lingering fallout from fish-threatening drain on the Russian River that occurred in 2008 and 2009, when growers turned on their sprinklers to protect their vines as temperatures dropped below freezing.

In 2011, state regulators took aim at the practice of diverting water from the Russian River for frost protection, which federal officials cite as a primary cause of mass strandings for federally protected salmon and steelhead runs in the river. Growers, who contest those claims, challenged the rules in court. The case currently is on appeal.

Growers say they've spent millions of dollars on building reservoirs, sinking new, deeper wells and buying wind machines to avoid taking water in ways that impact the Russian River during cold spells.

Koball said Fetzer, which has about 950 acres in the upper Russian River watershed, has spent about $800,000 on measures that include building two ponds. He said Fetzer has about 20 acres dependent on river water for frost protection, and that if drought conditions persist, the winery is "fully prepared to let those acres go."

Dozens of growers gathered Friday at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa to discuss ways of saving water, and their crops. A similar workshop was held two weeks ago in Cloverdale.

"It is unfortunate in these extreme drought times that it appears some people would rather wait to see if something negative happens versus working towards a positive or at least a collaborative solution," said Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers.

Silver said River Watch is concerned only with a "handful of bad players" he said will flout the rules no matter what.

"They're not going to care about education, or about outreach," he said. "All they care about is the bottom line and their profits."

The full text of the letter can be found at ncriverwatch.org/legal/current/index.php.

(You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.)