California is in the midst of a four-year historic drought. Responsible leaders from all facets of the state’s business and regulatory communities are engaged in discussions to identify the most equitable and efficient means of managing this resource. For California and its economy, cooperation, prudent thinking and factual information are a must. Unfortunately, here in Sonoma County, a small group of west county residents is seeking to use this crisis to benefit their special interests but their arguments are neither accurate nor complete.
There are four issues they mischaracterize to build support for their views. Here are the facts about each of those issues:
Frost protection and impacts to endangered fish: In 2008, there were two events related to frost protection involving winegrape growers, who sometimes use water to protect emerging buds from freezing temperatures. A draw-down of water in the main stem of the Russian River near Hopland resulted in the death of steelhead fingerlings.Though there were no large counts of dead fish, the west county opponents claim 25,000 fish died as a result of the incident. This number is based on an extrapolation by the National Marine Fisheries on a small number of dead fish that were found. The validity of his estimate is questioned. The second event was on Felta Creek where a draw to protect 5 acres of grapes stranded some fish. The grower was fined for his actions and lost his access to water from Felta Creek for frost protection.
As a result of these two events, Sonoma County winegrowers began working with regulatory agencies to reduce the risk in the future. Millions of dollars have been spent to provide offsite reservoir storage. Many farms have invested in wind machines to provide frost protection, saving large amounts of water. There are now more than 200 wind machines in Sonoma County protecting more than 4,000 acres of vines. Most importantly, since 2009, and in spite of the drought, there have been no fish kills related to frost protection of Sonoma County vineyards.
Watershed regulation by state agency: Recently, the State Water Resources Board identified four Sonoma County watersheds that it deemed critical to endangered fish. In public hearings, our neighbors raised concerns that residential users were being asked to conserve water while they viewed vineyard irrigation activities as the real problem. Even with previous cutbacks and increased use of water-saving technology in the vineyards, grape growers in these four watersheds announced in August that they had voluntarily adopted an additional 25 percent reduction in water usage. Furthermore, growers have suspended direct-from-the-stream diversions of water for vineyard use in these watersheds.
Creation of a mono-culture: The West County opponents continue to claim that viticulture is creating a mono-culture that is detrimental to the environment. The fact is that vineyards account for only 6 percent of Sonoma County’s 1 million acres while pastures account for 36 percent and forests 49 percent, making for a diverse and healthy environment.
Water quality questions: Opponents have alleged that recent algae blooms on the Russian River are attributable to pesticide and fertilizer-runoff from surrounding vineyards. This simply ignores the fact that the great majority of vineyards adjacent to the Russian River and its tributaries participate in the Fish Friendly Farming program, which requires participants to use best practices that reduce or eliminate unwanted runoff from the fields.