Diversion order lifted on the upper Russian River

The ban on diversions for junior water right holders strained supplies for dozens of growers this summer. Now they’ll be able to store water during winter storms, if the rains come.|

State water regulators have lifted a nearly six-month freeze on certain water diversions from the upper Russian River, provoking relief among Sonoma and Mendocino county grape growers and others north of Healdsburg who are dependent on the river for crop irrigation and other uses.

Notice served over the weekend to 652 state permit holders whose claims to river water were suspended last May means they can once again pump from the river.

More importantly, given the season, those with permits allowing for wintertime storage can begin refilling reservoirs in preparation for the dry summer months if rain comes, several grape growers said.

For those users, lifting of the order to stop drawing water was “a tremendous relief for growers,” said Brandon Axell, general manager at Beckstoffer Vineyards in Talmage, south of Ukiah.

“This is the time of year where a lot of times we’ll get some big storms, and a lot of that water will just go downstream and into the ocean, ” said Brad Petersen, vineyard manager for Silver Oak Cellars and Twomey Cellars, as well as chairman of the Sonoma County Winegrowers. “Now is the time we need to be collecting that.”

The State Water Resources Control Board said it was lifting the curtailment because of reduced demand on the river since the end of October, successful water conservation savings and an increase in tributary flows. The order can be reimposed at any time, depending on weather and stream gauges, the board said.

Authorities’ unprecedented move to curtail so-called “junior” water rights affected those who draw water from the river north of its confluence with Dry Creek under permits issued after 1954, when Coyote Dam was built to create Lake Mendocino.

The order on the Russian River was one of a series of statewide curtailment orders aimed at ensuring the needs of “senior” water right holders in the continuing drought. Other orders came down on the Eel, Sacramento and San Joaquin river watersheds, among others. Those on the Eel, Sacramento and San Joaquin also were lifted.

The curtailments proved challenging for those affected on the Russian River. Confusion and uncertainty inherent in the complex interpretation of water rights and hydrology left many unclear about what they could legally use and how they would get through the hottest months.

“There, for a while, we weren’t sure if we were going to have any water,” said Harry Black, vineyard manager for Rancho Miguel Vineyards in Alexander Valley.

The situation cut available supplies for several small Ukiah Valley water districts and forced some growers to haul thousands upon thousands of gallons of water from whatever sources they could find to irrigate crops during the warmest months.

“It was a great year to have a water truck or sell plastic water tanks,” said Sean White, general manager of the Mendocino County Russian River Flood Control and Water Conservation Improvement District. “Those people made an absolute killing.”

Agricultural users have trucked away 1.5 million gallons of highly treated wastewater provided by the city of Healdsburg since May for use on 74 acres of vineyard, city Utilities Director Terry Crowley said.

One of the beneficiaries, Richard Rued, of Rued Winery and Rued Vineyards, bought a 6,000-plus-gallon tanker truck that he and his son, Tom, used to transport reclaimed water from Healdsburg to their Alexander Valley vineyard.

But Rued said it was possible only because that vineyard is small, about 20 acres.

“Anyone with any size, they couldn’t do it,” Rued said of the time-consuming practice. “Even for us it was difficult.”

Many other growers managed the dry season by tapping alternate claims to groundwater and streams running through or adjacent to their lands. Some, blessed with little need for frost-protection efforts last winter, had reservoir storage left over that aided them through summer. Everyone reported using less water.

“There have been ways to deal with those curtailments,” said Petersen, the Sonoma County Winegrowers chairman. “None of them have been easy. None of them are cost-effective.”

Perhaps more than anything, the May 27 curtailment order has inflamed resentments within the ranks of North Coast agricultural interests, many of whom took issue with the strict mandates at a time when most urban consumers were under lesser, voluntary conservation measures. Some growers disputed the notion that senior water rights were ever at risk.

The topic also is fraught with bitterness over long-running disagreements over what constitutes groundwater to which landowners have a right and what is “underflow” from the Russian River and is thus subject to tighter regulation.

Amid the dispute, growers tried various ways “not to abuse the resource” and accomplish the water conservation driving state action, said Dennis Murphy of Murphy Ranch Vineyards near Geyserville,

“I mean, it was a great year to try that out, to see what else we could do, what was available to us,” Murphy said. “Could we seriously deal with a curtailment or with a series of curtailments over the next few years?”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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