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Vineyard frost protection rules up for vote before county supervisors

  • 4/7/2010: B1:
    PC: On Slusser Road Tuesday April 6, 2010 in Santa Rosa, sprinklers coat a vineyard with water as part of frost protection measures used due to the early morning frost warnings. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2010

Controversial rules designed to protect endangered fish and regulate how grape growers use water from the Russian River will be revisited by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

The board will vote on a plan to scale down the county program, which once aimed to require vineyard and orchard owners to monitor and report on their water diversions from the river.

Instead, under the changes likely to be approved, the county program will simply require farmers to register with the county if they use water in the Russian River watershed for their crops. The more substantial monitoring and reporting requirements have been left to state regulators, who created their own rules. But the state program is tied up in court after a coalition of grape growers sued and a judge postponed its enforcement in February.

Under the county ordinance, growers have to register as a water user and identify what vineyards and blocks they will be protecting from frost. There are 642 owner-operators in the Russian River valley, and so far the county has registered 82 percent of those, said Supervisor Mike McGuire.

"Over the last 12 months the registration program has been very successful," McGuire said. "And the county is continuing to move forward in bringing any last minute adopters into the program. But ultimately, I think we're all in a wait-and-see mode in regard to the litigation."

The lawsuit, which sought to overturn the state rules, is in Mendocino County Superior Court. Attorneys from both sides are currently filing briefs, and the judge will hear arguments in the case publicly on June 4, said Nicholas Jacobs, attorney for the plaintiffs.

Some in the environmental community were hoping that the county would do more to protect the watershed.

"The water demands on the Russian River and its tributaries have been more than has been sustainable, leading to fish kills and fish strandings," said David Keller, a Petaluma environmentalist and river advocate. "There was quite a lot of back and forth, and ultimately the original legislation was watered down."

Although the county is not monitoring water diversions from the river, and the state monitoring program is on hold, federal regulators from National Marine Fisheries Service and other agencies are still watching the river to ensure that endangered species aren't harmed.

"In the frost world, there's all the uncertainty of where things stand at the state level, but that's not a county issue," said Bob Anderson, executive director of United Wine Growers for Sonoma County. "In terms of oversight, there's plenty of enforcement authority out there, so I don't think anybody should think nobody's watching."

You can reach Staff Writer Cathy Bussewitz at 521-5276 or cathy.bussewitz@pressdemocrat.com.


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