Two large groups representing North Coast grape growers said Friday they are likely to voluntarily comply with rules designed to protect endangered fish in the Russian River, even though a judge has put the controversial regulations on hold.
But it's unclear whether other growers, who farm more than half of the 23,050 acres in the Russian River watershed, would follow their lead as they head into a critical time of year when water is commonly used to protect crops from frost.
A ruling Thursday by Mendocino County Superior Court Judge Ann Moorman halted enforcement of new state rules that regulate the use of water along the Russian River. The rules prohibit growers from spraying their crops with water during frost season unless they have submitted plans that outline the steps they will take to protect the river.
Growers have challenged the rules in two lawsuits, which are scheduled to be consolidated in Mendocino County in March. Moorman's ruling prevents the state from enforcing the rules until the case is decided in court.
In the meantime, many growers intend to voluntarily comply with the water demand management plans they have submitted to the state.
"I think that we're going to just go on ahead, because we have a point that we're trying to prove, and we've been doing this voluntarily for the past three years," said Al Cadd, president of Russian River Property Owners Association, which includes about 45 growers who manage 2,300 acres primarily in Alexander Valley.
Cadd's group has been monitoring water levels on the Russian River for the past three years to determine just what impact they may have on the river and its fish.
"I don't see any reason to stop at this point," he said.
The State Water Resources Control Board declined to answer whether it would appeal two rulings Thursday that put the regulations on hold and transferred the case to Mendocino County, saying it does not comment on pending litigation. It won't require growers to follow the rules while the stay is in effect, but it will assist those who choose to do so voluntarily, said Kathie Smith, spokeswoman for the water board.
"Yesterday's decision was not a decision on the merits," Smith said. "Regardless of whether the State Water Board appeals the stay or the transfer, it will vigorously defend the merits of the regulations at next month's anticipated trial."