Drought fears in Wine Country

To get a sense of how the state’s three-year drought has created a new normal in the wine industry, consider the truck that Rued Vineyards purchased this year.

Almost daily, Tom Rued would drive the stainless-steel tanker, with a capacity of 6,400 gallons, about 15 miles to a city of Healdsburg filling station to load up on recycled wastewater.

The entire operation takes about five hours, including the round trip between the Alexander Valley vineyard and the plant, the time filling up the tanker, and offloading the water into a drip irrigation system to keep 19 acres of sauvignon blanc vines moist enough to make it through another harvest.

Rued Vineyards has been pressed into such a drastic action after state water regulators this spring curtailed some of the vineyard’s water rights in the upper Russian River watershed along with more than 600 other junior water-rights holders. Officials with the state Water Resources Control Board have been following up with growers to make sure such orders are being followed, but no enforcement actions have yet been taken, said board spokesman George Kostyrko.

Luckily for impacted growers, Healdsburg’s program came online this year, providing roughly a dozen vineyards like Rued’s free reclaimed water either via truck or through a pipeline where a direct connection can be tapped. The program, intended to offset the use of potable water and irrigate up to 25,000 acres in the Alexander, Dry Creek and upper Russian River valleys, is forecast to use ?43 million gallons of treated wastewater per season, according to city data.

It comes as surface supplies in the upper Russian River are stretched, and as state regulators are moving to ensure enough water is around for senior water rights holders and delivery of drinking water, which has priority over farming under state law.

Such limits have rankled some in agriculture.

Owner Richard Rued said he believes the state board is monkeying with water rights and exceeding its authority by curtailing rights filed after 1954. He believes the state could be challenged over its curtailments, which have affected wide swaths of the state, including the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys and along the Eel River.

Rued is hopeful that rains this winter will alleviate his and other growers’ worries. If not, he fears the worst. “If we have another drought this winter, California is going to dry up and go away,” he remarked.

Rued’s saga is just part of the overall story playing out in North Coast vineyards this year as grape growers grapple with the prolonged drought. Some, like Rued, are more affected than others, though collectively the industry has breathed a big sigh of relief as late winter rains, a very light frost season and steady summer temperatures have allowed growers so far to make it through another season without severe repercussions as they begin harvest.

“This year, I think we are going to be OK,” said Sonoma County Agriculture Commissioner Tony Linegar.

Still, the effects of the drought are rippling beyond the immediate need of the vines, affecting a broad spectrum of the industry. It has already altered the pattern of grape sales, brought renewed urgency for better public policy by local officials, and spurred inventors to create new water conservation products.

Grapes use much less water compared to other crops, but that still offers little relief to producers given 82 percent of the state is under extreme drought conditions. In fact, fears of a drought were responsible for some wineries buying grapes earlier this year than they had anticipated, said Brian Clements, vice president of Turrentine Brokerage, a Novato wine and grape brokerage.

“They came out and they purchased more grapes than they were planning to because they didn’t know if there was going to be water,” Clements said.

When the fears did not pan out, wineries slowed their purchases of grapes, especially after two large crop years. “The threat of not having enough is not there now,” Clements said. “2015 could certainly be another story.”

State and federal officials are under pressure to provide relief via policymaking. Last week, the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences issued a report that found California has allocated five times more surface water than it actually has, making it difficult for regulators to determine who should be cut during a drought.

Some are exploring possible solutions.

Healdsburg’s move to tap its recycled water for grape growers put a new stamp on the practice in Wine Country.

Reclaimed water has been used for decades in other parts of the state and Sonoma County, including Santa Rosa, Petaluma and Windsor, to irrigate vineyards, pastures and landscaping. The Sonoma County Water Agency has been expanding its network of recycled water pipelines serving vineyards in Sonoma Valley and beyond.

Local officials are trying to expand such efforts.

Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, attempted last month to direct $52 million in federal money for more recycled water projects, offsetting cuts from nonmilitary nuclear projects. It was defeated in a floor vote.

“A drought like this really underscores the need to reuse water as much as possible and there is just a lot more we can do,” he said.

Huffman is trying to replicate a role he played as a state assemblyman in crafting and passing a major package of water reforms in 2009. But he said he has found little appetite in a GOP-controlled House divided among bitter partisanship.

“Some folks have looked at this drought as an opportunity to jam through their self-serving favorite waiver of the Endangered Species Act or stealing water for the North Coast,” Huffman said in a interview after speaking to local grape growers. “Those things are not drought solutions. Those things tend to divide us with winners or losers.”

The drought also has opened up business opportunities for people who believe they can play a role in helping vineyards save water.

For instance, Jeff Ciudaj of Angwin believes he can help. Ciudaj has invented a new irrigation tool that he claims can cut water use in vineyards by up to 50 percent. His probes attach to existing emitters and are inserted into the soil below the roots, injecting water directly into the root zone.

Ciudaj worked on the device for three years and has tested it in wineries such as the Grace Family Vineyards in St. Helena. He had been toying with the idea since the late 1990s, but he got more serious about it in recent years.

“The thing I believe, in the next decade surface irrigation is going to be phased out,” he said. “You’re going to have direct flow to the root zone.”

While Ciudaj works to get his product, which sells for $3 per device, into local retail stores, the drought remains a constant concern even for those not heavily affected so far.

Twomey Cellars will soon have to truck water from the city plant in Healdsburg to irrigate 12 acres of sauvignon blanc vines in the Russian River Valley, said Brad Petersen, vineyard manager. He has already irrigated the vineyard twice this year, but a well on the property does not have sufficient capacity to water it a third time before harvest.

“We have been lucky at our other ranches that we have a good water supply,” Peter-?sen said. Still, he is taking no chances and Twomey plans to get permission from nearby land owners to hook up to the city’s pipeline, which is located about a quarter-mile away.

In the new normal, growers may have to consider other options if the drought gets worse, said Rhonda Smith, a viticulture farm adviser at the UC Cooperative Extension.

The water-saving measures range in the spectrum from closely mowing the spaces between vine rows - known as cover crops - to the more extreme scale, such as reducing the number of shoots on the vine, which could shrink the size of the crop and growers’ revenues.

One pressing issue in the future will be the ability of vineyard owners to store reclaimed water in ponds, which is prohibited under the city of Healdsburg program.

“You have a million gallons a day available in Healdsburg,” Linegar said. “I’m sure there will be growers who want to install a pond and be able to store and more consistently use that water.”

Rued is taking a wait-and-see attitude and is hopeful he can get out of the water-hauling business.

“We’re going to see what happens,” he said. “If we get ?25 inches (of rain), we’re going to sell the truck.”

You can reach Staff Writer ?Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or ? On Twitter @Bill?Swindell.

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