Grape growers in Sonoma and Mendocino Counties have sued the California Water Resources Control Board over its new regulations on how farmers use water from the Russian River watershed.

The group, called the Russian River Water Users for the Environment, is comprised of several dozen farmers who grow grapes for wine production in the Russian River watershed. The lawsuit, filed Thursday in the Superior Court of California in Sacramento, also lists four individual growers.

They say the regulations are unconstitutional, too broad and sweeping and don't address steps that growers are already taking to protect salmon and steelhead populations.<NO1><NO>

"Our concern as growers is it's putting the hammer down on the entire area," said Duff Bevill, founder of Bevill Vineyards Management near Healdsburg.

The regulations address a frost protection technique in which farmers spray water on their crops when temperatures fall below freezing to keep the buds and vines at a stable 32 degrees. It is typically done in the spring.

The rules, adopted Sept. 20, are intended to safeguard salmon and steelhead populations in the Russian River. During peak water-use times, water levels in the Russian River may drop. Federal officials from the National Marine Fisheries Service said that when growers removed water from the river for frost protection in 2008 and 2009 they stranded and killed salmon and steelhead.

"There have just been two incidents that were documented, and both of those were addressed," Bevill said. "Both of them have stopped their diversions during the peak times; both have built ponds. Growers have responded, and said, &‘We get it.'"

Under the rules, any grower who plans to engage in frost protection from March 15 through May 15, 2012 must submit a water management plan to the state or be part of a larger water plan developed by a "governing body." Those plans are due by Feb. 1.

Bevill said that if those plans are not approved, growers will have little time to make changes before the onset of frost.

"It doesn't acknowledge the things we're already doing," Bevill said. "We still want to do a water management program; we just want the science behind it."

David Clegern, spokesman for the State Water Resources Control Board, said the board does not comment on pending litigation.

Grape growers have been working with Sonoma County on a program to monitor stream levels, and they plan to continue those efforts regardless of the new state regulations, said Pete Opatz, vice president and senior viticulturist, Silverado Premium Properties.

"We are committed to doing what we need to do locally," he said. Opatz is not a part of the litigation.

The group Trout Unlimited also has been working with growers to develop alternative methods for frost protection, such as creating off-stream ponds to store water, and installing fans that can help deter frost in some places.

"I'm not necessarily surprised, but I am disappointed," said Brian Johnson, California Director of Trout Unlimited. "I think that the farmers and the salmon will be better off if we take more time working on the solutions, and less time litigating over it."

David Keller, who represents the group Friends of the Eel River, said it was unfortunate that the group went to court instead of recognizing that all users in the Russian River watershed have an obligation to protect fisheries.

"This is the property rights, anti-environmental wing of the grape growers," Keller said. "It's time to get past the 1960's practice of taking whatever water they want and planting in areas that they know are frost-prone without sufficient water or other means to protect their crop."