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Korbel Champagne Cellars' Bill Owens said the company is aware of the problem and will work to clean it up this week.

"We don't like it either," said Owens, a vice president for production.

Owens said Korbel is working with Don McEnhill of Russian Riverkeeper, a Healdsburg-based nonprofit group that monitors the river, to mobilize boats and a work crew on Wednesday or Thursday.

"With our resources, we can only work from the top of the bank," Owens said. "We have been chasing this thing whenever we can, however Don has some resources (who) are comfortable and competent working in the water."

In the spring or summer, after the threat of winter rains, Owens said Korbel will hire a contractor with an excavator to remove the debris, which he said was dumped there more than three decades ago.

McEnhill said he expects to be able to get 10 boats in the river this week and have the majority of the trash picked up within a day.

He said there have been similar problems along the stretch of river in the past.

"The immediate need is to get all that stuff off so the river doesn't come up and send it all down the river," McEnhill said.

The problem area is a bend where the river channel has shifted over the years, eroding the bank and eating into the vineyard. It is a spot where grapes had been planted over former trash and debris pits.

Owens said several acres of vineyards at that site have been lost to erosion.

He also said Korbel had dealt with this same dump site in 1998 and thought it had been cleaned up.

The exposed trash is readily visible by boat. Plastic, champagne bottles and other debris protrude from the mud.

"It has been an ongoing issue for a few years," said Capt. Steve Riske, an official at the state Fish and Game office in Windsor.

"Every year the river goes up, it washes away the bank and more of the trash has been exposed."

Riske said that as long Korbel hires people to clean up the river and remove the trash, his agency is satisfied.

That could change, he said, if barrels of fluids or similar items were to be spotted poking out of the hillside.

"But from what we have seen, plastic sheeting and that kind of thing, there is not an immediate threat. Excavating would do more bad than good," Riske said.

The North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, which oversaw the cleanup in 1998, will be sending people to the scene, said Luis Rivera, assistant executive officer.

For about a half-mile downstream, trees are littered with torn plastic up to 15 feet above the water level, a high-water mark from December storms.

"All the years being on the river, and how beautiful it is — this makes me sick to my stomach, not only as a businessman making my living on the river, but just being a resident," said Steve Jackson, owner of King's Sport & Tackle in Guerneville.

Jackson said he moved to the Russian River area as a child and remembers catching his first fish at the age of 13.

"You go to the Eel, you don't see this; you go to the Smith, you don't see this kind of thing," said Jackson, who took his drift boat past the Korbel site. "It's horrible."

River residents said they began noticing the debris after Dec. 30. The river has reached a depth of nearly 24 feet at Guerneville, high enough to erode the river bank upstream at Korbel.

You can reach Staff Writer Bob Norberg at 521-5206 or bob.norberg@pressdemocrat.com.