Rules to protect Russian River salmon opposed by Farm Bureau

Sweeping state action to protect imperiled salmon in dwindling local streams and limit water use by thousands of rural Sonoma County landowners has come under fire from two sides, including farmers who say the move is heavy handed and from a river advocate who says the proposed rules should not exempt farms.

The emergency regulation, scheduled for consideration by state water regulators Wednesday in Sacramento, would apply to about 13,000 landowners in about 130-square miles of ground across four watersheds: Dutch Bill and Green Valley creeks in the west county, Mark West Creek north of Santa Rosa and Mill Creek west of Healdsburg.

If the measure is approved by regulators, residents and businesses, including wineries, would be prohibited from using water drawn from the creeks or nearby wells for sprinkling lawns or washing cars. Only gray water - from bathtubs, showers and washing machines - or captured rainwater could be used for such purposes.

The action would also require landowners to provide - on request by state officials - details of their use of stream and well water, a dramatic step in a state where unlimited pumping of groundwater has historically been deemed an inherent property right.

Farmers see that requirement as burdensome and of questionable value.

“Most importantly, all of the information collected will not save any fish this summer,” Tito Sasaki, chairman of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s Water Committee, said in a letter to the State Water Resources Control Board.

But a leading local river advocate said the rules don’t go far enough in one significant way, citing the exemption that regulators would grant to agriculture. Growers with rights to stream water or with nearby wells would still be allowed to tap those sources for crop irrigation, a provision that has rekindled, on a smaller scale, the city-versus-farm tension dogging California’s response to the four-year drought.

“If we’re not addressing agriculture, do we really think we can keep water in the streams?” asked Don McEnhill, executive director of Russian Riverkeeper, a conservation group founded in 1993.

Groundwater accounts for the majority of water used in the four watersheds, though the total volume is unknown, according to the state water board.

The proposed rules come as California escalates its response to the ongoing drought. Regulators last week announced the state will curtail allotments for more than 270 senior water rights holders in the Central Valley, a historic step triggered by insufficient supplies.

A previous request to landowners in the four Russian River watersheds to voluntarily curb water use drew a meager response, spurring the proposed regulation, state officials said.

The rules are intended to protect coho salmon, an endangered species that officials say is increasingly at risk in the creeks, where young fish will spend the summer months contending with dropping water levels. The four affected watersheds are considered critical rearing habitat for coho, and state officials said drought conditions, combined with safeguards mandated by endangered species laws, forced them to act.

But the Farm Bureau has voiced strong protest against the groundwater use reporting rule, saying in a letter to the water board that the information would be “difficult and expensive” for private well owners to generate on 30 days’ notice.

The letter, signed by Sasaki, a Sonoma Valley grape grower, said the regulation “will irreparably damage the fragile cooperative spirit we are trying to nurture (with state and federal agencies), putting us back into the atmosphere of mutual suspicion and distrust.”

Sasaki’s letter, dated Monday, noted that farmers have “offered to release their stored irrigation water” to help maintain minimum flows in the streams. It asked the water board to eliminate the water reporting rule from the proposed regulation.

State officials think the proposed conservation measures may sufficiently enhance stream flows, but if not the water reporting rule needs to be in place for quick action, said Tim Moran, a water board spokesman. Additional restrictions could be imposed if the fish continue to be imperiled, he said.

Many agriculture operations already maintain the necessary water records, and the state is not requiring meters to be installed on wells, Moran said. For residential landowners who are unable to gauge water use from their wells, the water board will provide an estimation method.

McEnhill, the river advocate, said that vineyards and rural residences have proliferated, especially along Green Valley, Mark West and Mill creeks, since the last major drought in 1976-77. A Healdsburg resident, McEnhill said he remembers swimming in deep pools on Mill Creek in the summer of 1977.

If agricultural water use is not curtailed, “I think those streams are going to go dry,” he said.

Doug McIroy, director of winegrowing at Rodney Strong Vineyards and a board member of Sonoma County Winegrowers, agreed that fish are at risk in the local watersheds.

But grape growers are “doing the best they can” to reduce water consumption, he said, noting that local vineyards use one-third to one-half an acre-foot of water per acre, while Central Valley grapevines can use up to three acre-feet per acre. For comparison, a family of four uses about a half acre-foot of water per year.

“We water as little as we have to bring our crop in,” McIroy said.

Violations of the water conservation measures could be punishable by a fine of up to $500 a day, Moran said.

State water board and California Department of Fish and Wildlife officials will conduct inspections in the watersheds, looking for people who are improperly watering lawns or landscaping, he said.

For details on the proposed regulations, including watershed maps, go to

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

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