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Hundreds of grape growers and farmers in Sonoma and Mendocino counties are girding for the implementation of new state rules aimed at protecting imperiled fish in the Russian River by regulating stream diversions for frost protection.

With a three-year legal battle now concluded in the state’s favor, affected farmers will have to submit “water demand management plans” to the state water regulators by Feb. 1 and be prepared to implement those plans during the upcoming frost season — March 15 to May 15. Farmers are prohibited from drawing water during that time from the Russian River system, including wells dependent on that water source, without a plan.

“This year will be interesting. There are a lot of question marks” remaining about the rules, said Mendocino County Farm Bureau Executive Director Devon Jones.

Growers in Mendocino and Sonoma counties challenged the state rules in a pair of lawsuits, arguing that they infringed on growers’ water rights.

In Sonoma County, however, a majority of affected farmers have taken steps to comply with the rules, said Tito Sasaki, president of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau.

But “there are some others who are not aware” of what they need to do, he said.

Farmers can learn more about the rules at a workshop being held at the fairgrounds in Cloverdale on Nov. 24, he said.

The rules are meant to prevent endangered and threatened salmon and steelhead trout from becoming stranded and dying when farmers pump water from the Russian River and its tributaries during spring cold snaps. Water is sprayed on vines to create a protective ice shield when temperatures fall below freezing. But when numerous farmers pump from the river at the same time, it can cause water levels to abruptly drop, stranding fish on dry land.

The regulations were triggered by fish stranding incidents in 2008. Federal fisheries officials blamed farmers, primarily winegrape growers, and asked the state to take action to prevent further incidents. The Russian River watershed is home to more than 60,000 acres of vineyards. Of those, 70 percent are within 300 feet of salmonid habitat, according to court documents.

The state adopted frost protection regulations in 2011 but implementation was delayed amid the legal challenges advanced by a group of growers called the Russian River Water Users for the Environment and Mendocino County vineyard owner Rudy Light. A Mendocino County judge found in the opponents’ favor, but a state appellate court overruled that decision in June and upheld the state Water Resources Control Board’s authority to implement the rules. The state Supreme Court last month declined to take up the case.

The water management plans mandated by the state may be either individual or group plans. They must document existing frost protection systems, incorporate stream flow monitoring, assess the potential risks of causing fish strandings, include safeguards to prevent fish from being killed.

Doug McIlroy, director of winegrowing at Rodney Strong Vineyards, is among those who are well prepared to move forward. He said the Healdsburg-based winemaker had a program in place in 2011, before the litigation stalled the rules. More than a dozen other wineries had signed on to participate in the plan at the time.

“We’re likely to sign them all up again,” McIlroy said.

The state encourages group plans and it’s less expensive per person when farmers join forces on a single plan for their area, he noted.

Sonoma County also has taken steps that have prepared its farmers for the rules. Since 2011, the county has required that farmers provide information about their frost protection systems and their frost protection water sources.

Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar said 18,264 acres in the Russian River watershed use water to protect against frost. Three quarters of those growers use water from wells rather than direct diversion from rivers, so they shouldn’t cause dramatic declines in river levels during frost events. Nevertheless, they’re required to have a plan.

The Nov. 24 meeting is sponsored by the Sonoma and Mendocino counties farm bureaus and winegrape grower groups in both counties. The agenda has yet to be finalized, but it’s expected to begin at 9 a.m., Jones said. Officials from the state Water Resources Control Board are expected to attend.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or glenda.anderson @pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MendoReporter

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