State water regulators Tuesday approved a sweeping set of rules to govern how vineyard and orchard operators in the Russian River watershed use water to protect crops from springtime frost.
The rules are meant to safeguard beleaguered salmon and steelhead populations and could affect hundreds of growers and more than 21,000 acres in both Sonoma and Mendocino county.
The decision on one of the North Coast's most contentious natural resource issues came over the continued opposition of some growers, who said the rules were unnecessary, unjustified and outside the legal authority of the state board.
Now, growers will be required to participate in a "demand management" program that tracks their water diversions for frost, records stream flows and reports the data to state and federal agencies.
The rules are set to take effect in February and be phased in over the next three years. For the first time, agricultural users must track and report their water use from March 15 through May 15, including pumping of ground water that is connected to streams.
The state Water Resources Control Board, which had been developing the rules for two years, approved them on a 3-0 vote at a hearing in Sacramento. The decision followed several lengthy hearings this year and last that pitted leaders of the region's top-grossing wine economy against advocates seeking to restore the area's once bountiful salmon and steelhead runs.
The standoff centers on growers' practice of spraying their crops with water during spring cold snaps to protect the plants from frost.
Concentrated diversions during those periods, federal officials say, have caused sharp drops in stream levels and been responsible for fish kills in recent years. Regulators began the push for the new rules in 2008 after they linked frost measures to fish kills on the Russian River near Hopland and on Felta Creek, a tributary.
Grower groups have hotly disputed those findings. But since then, they also have been involved in a flurry of voluntary efforts aimed at fixing the problem. In doing so, some had hoped to head off or at least minimize the need for state regulation.
That meant Tuesday's vote was a big disappointment to some in the local wine industry. Lingering concerns from environmentalists about the strength of the new regulations, however, also mean no one walked away from the meeting fully satisfied.
"Very seldom is something that we do perfect," said Charlie Hoppin, chairman of the state water board.
The strongest pushback Tuesday came from Mendocino County growers and interests.
They questioned the science that led federal officials to link fish kills in the watershed to frost protection, and said the regulations would derail recent efforts by growers to resolve the issue.
"They identified a problem and we went out and solved it," said Sean White, general manager of a Mendocino County flood district and a leading voice among critics of the new rules.
He said growers in Mendocino County have spent $3.7 million in public and private grant funds in the last three years to build a dozen off-stream storage ponds and make other irrigation changes to reduce their impact on fish. No fish kills linked to frost protection have been documented since then, he said.
"They (the state board) have moved forward as if we haven't done anything," he said.