Sonoma County supervisors Tuesday approved formation and funding of an independent science panel to review and recommend studies on the Russian River watershed.
The appointed body, to be headed by a UC Berkeley scientist, will focus on the river and tributaries upstream of Dry Creek, including the stretch of river up to Lake Mendocino east of Ukiah.
Mark West Creek and Green Valley Creek in Sonoma County also will be included.
Sonoma County supervisors, as well as leaders from Mendocino County, backed the effort as a key tool to help comply with federal rules to protect endangered fish species and state rules to govern use of spring flows for vineyard and orchard frost protection.
The rules are major hurdles for growers of the region's leading wine grape crop and for the Sonoma County Water Agency, which taps into the river for public water supply.
Growers cheered the move, saying it would fill gaps in knowledge about the river and settle water policy disputes muddied by politics.
"It has the potential to answer a lot of questions and put to rest a lot of arguments," said Keith Horn, vice president of vineyard operations for the wine giant Constellation Brands.
Sonoma County supervisors echoed those comments, saying solid science will help in juggling the competing demands of water supply for agriculture, homes, recreation and the needs of the river's wildlife. The board's 5-0 vote approved $47,450 in Water Agency funds for the two-year effort.
Environmental leaders, however, are still largely on the fence about the science panel. They have not opposed it outright and are withholding their support until questions about the panel are answered.
Mostly, advocates say they are concerned growers will hold too much sway over the effort.