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Judge postpones frost protection rules for Russian River growers

A Mendocino County judge on Thursday postponed the state's new rules on frost protection until grape growers who filed a lawsuit challenging the rules have their day in court.

Rudy and Linda Light, who own a small family vineyard in Redwood Valley on a tributary to the west fork of the Russian River, filed the lawsuit in October to challenge the frost protection regulations enacted by the state Water Resources Control Board last fall.

The ruling by Mendocino County Superior Court Judge Ann Moorman delayed enforcement of the new regulations, a decision that lawyers say will apply to all grape growers in the Russian River watershed.

"Everybody who was concerned about the regulation benefits from it," said Matisse M. Knight, a Ukiah lawyer who represented the plaintiffs. "The board can't enforce that regulation. And that's not exclusive to the Lights."

State water regulators urged growers Thursday to voluntarily comply with the controversial rules while the courts resolve two legal challenges filed by growers in Sonoma and Mendocino counties. Such actions would demonstrate that growers are taking precautionary steps to protect endangered species, said Kathie Smith, spokeswoman for the State Water Resources Control Board.

"The State Water Board is currently reviewing the court's ruling," Smith said in a statement. "However, this is not a ruling on the merits of the case, it is simply a ruling on whether the regulations are enforceable prior to trial."

The new state regulations are designed to protect young salmon from becoming stranded when water levels in the Russian River and its tributaries are low.

The rules target grape growers who divert water from the watershed for frost protection, spraying the vines with water when the air temperature threatens to dip below freezing. The practice helps the temperature remain constant and reduces the chance of crop loss.

The state required such growers to submit water demand management plans and measure the cumulative effects of their water use on the river, at a cost that could hurt some farmers.

If growers didn't comply with the regulations by March 15, they were prohibited from spraying their vines with water.


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