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<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.

"There's no way to fight these people," Doerksen said about the vineyard owners surrounding him. "They have so much money."

<b>Enhancing stability </b>

To improve the situation, vintners and growers from the top companies have helped build popular environmental certification programs like Fish Friendly Farming. And companies like E&J Gallo, Jackson Family Wines and Rodney Strong are widely credited with conducting research to reduce water and energy use.

"In a lot of ways, when you have those larger companies, they tend to be a little more progressive, and a little more out in front of things," said Linegar, the county agriculture commissioner. "With the smaller growers, they usually wait until the very last minute to comply with new regulations."

But both Gallo and Jackson Family Wines have a reputation in the industry for developing and sharing research on water conservation, frost protection alternatives and pest management with other grape growers in the industry, many veterans said.

"They're out there on kind of the leading edge," said Nick Frey, former president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers. "They're the big ones that are promoting sustainable farming in the county, and they're sharing information about how they're doing that."

The largest companies often have the resources to take care of their land, Linegar said.

"When I look at the properties that Gallo and K-J have, I see a lot of stewardship," Linegar said.

Pushing innovation sometimes backfires, when the big companies raise the bar too high, and smaller companies with fewer resources are pressured to keep up, several sources in the environmental and grape-growing communities said.

"There's a limit to how far the industry wants to go," said David Keller, Bay Area director of Friends of the Eel River, a North Coast environmental group. "There are some major players who would continue their practices as is until there are no more fish in their streams."

Simi Winery, now owned by beverage giant Constellation Brands, helped create Fish Friendly Farming, a voluntary certification process through which farmers create and sustain healthy fish habitat on private lands.

"The idea that just because you're big you can't be environmentally sensitive just doesn't hold water anymore," said Steve Smit, vice president of vineyards and grape management at Constellation. "I can think of smaller companies that are less environmentally aware than we are."

<b>Rigorous certification </b>

The FFF program, which is considered a rigorous environmental certification, helps farmers meet local, state and federal regulations that are designed to protect endangered fish habitat. To comply, farmers plant cover crops between vines to limit erosion, find ways to reduce water use, keep storage units from leaking chemicals into the soil and spread straw on dirt roads to limit erosion and air pollution from dust.

If the farmer diverts water from a river or a stream, the pipes are checked to make sure there's a suitable "fish screen" to keep endangered marine life from getting sucked up into the pipes.

After those and other steps are taken, the National Marine Fisheries Service and state Regional Water Quality Control Board sign off to make the certification official. Overall, the process can take a year or two to complete, said Laurel Marcus, executive director of the California Land Stewardship Institute, which runs the FFF program.

In Sonoma County, 22,500 acres of vineyards — or more than a third of the county's vineyards — are certified or in the process of obtaining certification, Marcus said.

All of Constellation's 950 planted acres in Sonoma County are certified as FFF. Vineyards owned by Ferrari-Carano, the fifth-largest vineyard holder with 1,115 planted acres, and Treasury Wine Estates, with 881 acres, also are 100 percent certified, Marcus said. Rodney Strong has the certification for its nearly 800 planted acres.

At its core, Fish Friendly Farming is a guide to help farmers navigate and meet the complex regulations that many say are costly and difficult to follow.

But having FFF certification doesn't necessarily mean that a vineyard owner is going above and beyond what's required by law. It means they're following the rules, Marcus said.

Often, wineries do go beyond the requirements, restoring creeks and streams, she said.

"We've had people take land out of production, or set their banks back (from creeks)," Marcus said.

Jackson Family Wines and Gallo have only certified a few vineyards, Marcus said.

"Neither one of them has really adopted this program, which is fine," Marcus said. "It's voluntary, so we're not too worried about it."

You can reach Staff Writer Cathy Bussewitz at 521-5276 or cathy.bussewitz@pressdemocrat.com.