<b>Hillside planting </b>
When a wave of new applications for hillside vineyards rushed in for county approval in 2012, newly appointed Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar stepped in to halt the developments until the decade-old rules were updated.
Originally drafted in 2000 in the midst of that planting boom, the hillside vineyard ordinance was enacted to limit erosion from hillside vineyards. The rules were designed to protect endangered fish from sediment that can clog stream habitats. But the original rules didn't address the practice of removing trees, so the county tightened those restrictions in 2012. Representatives from top companies were there to weigh in.
"We talk to our supervisors, we try to educate them on the cost and the liabilities and the risks, and we all have to prepare for wasting a lot of resources on legal matters," said Pete Opatz, vice president and senior viticulturist at Silverado Premium Properties.
The ordinance stopped a slew of projects in their tracks. Now, farmers are required to have increased studies and tests to determine the impacts of planting, a process that dissuades some from proceeding because of the time and cost.
<b>Limited water supply</b>
The way farmers draw water from the Russian River also has been a hot policy topic that drew input from the top companies. Regulators long have sought to strike a balance between protecting fish and enabling farmers and residents to use flows from the river and its creeks. But in the springtime, when temperatures fall below freezing and some growers spray their vines with river water to protect them from frost, tensions flare over water levels in the river.
Although it is difficult to isolate specific impacts of vineyards and other water users on the Russian River and its creeks, it is widely acknowledged that water from many Sonoma County streams is overused, said Jim Milbury, spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Milbury's office, working with the state Water Resources Control Board and local agriculture interests, estimated that a typical 100-acre vineyard could use 32.6 million gallons of water per year, plus additional water for frost protection that could range from nothing to 15 million gallons, he said. A more efficient vineyard could use half those amounts.
By contrast, a typical Sonoma County household consumes about 120 gallons per person every day, so a family of three could consume about 131,400 gallons a year, Milbury said.
In a recent study published in the journal Transactions of the American Fisheries Society, scientists studied nearly a decade of data from nine sites on Russian River tributaries and found that the survival of juvenile steelhead in the dry summer months is adversely affected by the presence of vineyards. Those findings were consistent with a 2012 study by the National Marine Fisheries Service that found that water diversions were a "very high" threat to steelhead in the Russian River, Milbury said.
Some water watchers feel the strain that vineyards place on the county's water supply is so severe the waterways may never recover.
"You can only put so many straws in, and all of a sudden you're sucking out way more water than the rain can put back in," said Jim Doerksen, a longtime farmer, conservationist and critic of vineyard and winery developments along Mark West Creek.
For Doerksen, that dynamic has played out among the smaller vineyard owners on Mark West Creek to the point where he has lost hope the stream will recover.