The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday will review a new plan that attempts to protect endangered fish while allowing grapegrowers to continue using Russian River water to defend their vineyards from frost.
The just-released plan, developed by the wine industry and county staff, is being blasted by some environmentalists who say it would do too little to prevent fish-killing water diversions on the Russian River and its tributaries. As well, the proposal has drawn concern from federal officials who monitor endangered coho salmon and threatened steelhead.
"For our part, we cannot endorse a vineyard frost protection ordinance that lacks the means to establish a meaningful monitoring program and a transparent process," Steven Edmondson, an official with the National Marine Fisheries Service, wrote in an Oct. 19 letter to the supervisors.
The county proposal is the latest attempt by growers to win approval of federal officials and the state Water Resources Control Board. A major question is whether state officials will back down on a demand that a local frost management program include quick consequences for farmers who break the rules.
The supervisors won't take action Tuesday. Instead, the board is expected to set a Dec. 7 hearing on the plan.
Many county growers pull water out of the Russian River and its tributaries when temperatures dip below freezing in the spring, spraying the water over their vines to put a protective coating of ice on the new plant growth.
Water diversions for frost protection stranded and killed both coho salmon and steelhead in 2008 and 2009, according to federal officials. The strandings, prohibited under the Endangered Species Act, occurred on the Russian River and a tributary, Felta Creek.
State water board members last winter rejected a plan by Sonoma and Mendocino county growers for voluntary efforts to protect the fish. Instead, the board members informally backed a staff proposal to forbid diversions unless growers join an approved water management program or show that their diversions would have a "negligible effect" on fish.
At the meeting, a staff member said any management program must "have the authority to kick bad actors out." As well, the staff proposal called for "instantaneous" monitoring of diversions to prevent harm to fish.
The water board called for rules to take effect in 2011. But the state now is preparing to conduct an environmental impact report, with a meeting planned for Nov. 17 in Santa Rosa to discuss the scope of the study. As such, new state rules likely won't take effect before 2012.
In response to the stand taken by state board members, grape growers asked Sonoma County supervisors last spring for help in creating a county frost protection program.
Grower leaders said the county should approve the program now and begin collecting key data on stream flows and water diversions.
"We're looking for working solutions that actually protect the resource and allow farming to continue and be sustainable," said Pete Opatz, a viticulturist overseeing 5,000 acres of vineyards in Napa and Sonoma counties for Silverado Premium Properties. Growers, he said, understand the issue is serious and either "you get out in front of it or you get run over."
But critics said the plan was a backroom deal crafted without input from environmental groups and designed mostly to shield grape growers from scrutiny of their water use practices.