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New California water reporting rules worry Sonoma County grape growers

About 2,250 water rights holders in Sonoma County will be affected by new regulations requiring them to report all surface water diversions to the state and for larger diverters to measure them as well. Vineyard and winery representatives say the requirement will be costly and hard to meet by the established deadlines.

The regulations, adopted Tuesday night by the State Water Resources Control Board, apply to about 30,000 water rights holders statewide who have, historically, been subject to minimal accounting of the water they draw from rivers and creeks.

But a bill signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in June called for emergency regulations on reporting surface water diversions allowed under a complex system of water rights that applies primarily to farmers, ranchers and utilities.

Given the need to more closely manage the state’s water resources in an ongoing drought, officials said they need more accurate, timely information on large-scale water use.

“Knowing where, when and how much water is being used is essential to managing the system fairly for all,” Felicia Marcus, the board chairwoman, said in a news release. “We’ve historically not had a complete picture, and these past two years have made it even more essential to take this common-sense move.”

Under the new rules, all water rights holders must submit annual reports on their water diversions.

Those who divert more than 10 acre-feet of water - the equivalent of what about 15 households use in a year - also must measure their diversions. That category includes about 12,000 water rights holders statewide and about 980 in the Russian River watershed, said Tim Moran, a water board spokesman.

North Coast grape growers are concerned about the costs and their ability to meet the deadlines for installing the mandated measurement systems, said Paula Whealen, a Sacramento engineering firm partner who advises the wine industry on water rights.

The costs could run into thousands of dollars for growers, with greater expenses for larger vineyards, Whealen said. “You just don’t know (the financial impact).”

Water rights holders long have been required to measure and report diversions, but a broad loophole allowed about 70 percent of them to claim an exemption, which the new rules eliminated, the water board statement said.

The new rules require the largest diverters, with rights to take 1,000 acre-feet or more per year, to set up measuring systems capable of recording hourly water use. Those failing to comply with the regulations could be subject to a penalty of $500 per day.

“I think it’s pretty groundbreaking,” said Whealen, whose clients have included Gallo Vineyards, Fetzer Vineyards and Constellation Brands, the nation’s third-largest wine company.

Doug McIlroy, director of winegrowing at Rodney Strong Vineyards, said that in addition to the cost of compliance, vineyards and wineries may face a shortage of consultants needed to establish the measurement systems over the next two years.

“It’s a pretty high bar to get it done to the level they are requiring,” he said. “We still haven’t fully assessed what we need to do.”

Rodney Strong has meters on many of its water diversions, but most do not record data in real time, he said. The state wants to know “when it’s on and when it’s off.”

McIlroy also said he doesn’t know “how much leeway” the state will allow wineries to meet the deadlines.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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