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.
The remainder of the $107,000 in funding comes from groups or agencies that have lobbied on behalf of growers and against a state crackdown on use of river water for frost protection, advocates argue.
That includes support from the panel's proposed administrator, the California Land Stewardship Institute, the nonprofit that administers the Fish Friendly Farming certification program in Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, and Solano counties.
"Is this going to do real science or is it going to be used to greenwash the grape industry's existing practices?" said David Keller, Bay Area director for the Friends of the Eel River. "That remains to be seen."
The panel is to be overseen by Professor Matt Kondolf, chair of the landscape architecture and environmental planning department at UC Berkeley.
The other seven or eight members are to be appointed by a committee made up of representatives from the Sonoma County Water Agency, the National Marine Fisheries Service, which oversees the river's struggling steelhead and salmon stocks, a Mendocino County flood control district and two grower groups.
The Sonoma County Water Coalition, which includes 32 environmental groups, also has been invited to provide a representative for the selection panel.
Stephen Fuller—Rowell, a co-founder of the coalition, said the group was taking a "wait and see" position on whether it would endorse the effort.
If it does not, an environmental representative for the selection panel could be appointed by Kondolf, the chairman, or by another local group.
County Water Agency officials said they hope panel selection will begin in several weeks.