Diversion order lifted on the upper Russian River
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.