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Two top state regulators came to Wine Country Friday to applaud 41 rural landowners, including the owners of seven vineyards, for signing voluntary agreements to conserve water or add water to coho salmon-rearing creeks in the Russian River watershed.

“I am stunned,” Chuck Bonham, director of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, told a crowd of about 40 people at the Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate & Gardens in Santa Rosa, describing improved conditions for the thousands of juvenile salmon and steelhead trout trapped in four drought-diminished creeks until winter rain carries them to the river.

“I think we may actually make it,” he said. “Thank you from the big bad regulator at the Department of Fish and Wildlife.”

“What we have done here is the beginning,” said Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

“Look at the future. It is going to build on what you’ve started here,” she said, referring to the challenge of coping with climate change. “This is what we’re going to have to do in this century,” Ross said.

The event came as a counterpoint to widespread resentment from the belief that vineyard expansion is largely to blame for creeks going nearly dry.

Katie Jackson, a vice president with Jackson Family Wines, said that her company, one of Sonoma County’s largest vineyard owners with 3,600 planted acres, has made water conservation a “priority for many years,” using wind machines instead of spraying vines with water for most frost protection and cutting water use in the winemaking process by 49 percent since 2008.

Jackson Family Wines signed agreements to conserve water at three vineyards in the Sebastopol area and a fourth agreement to pump up to 2.3 million gallons of water from a reservoir serving a pinot noir vineyard on Bones Lane into Green Valley Creek.

Since the release began in August, the creek refilled, connecting a series of pools in which coho were found, said Jordan Traverso, deputy director of the wildlife agency.

The wine company also donated $40,000 to a Trout Unlimited program to purchase rainwater collection tanks for rural residents.

Coho and steelhead are local species that spawn in fresh water, with juveniles spending their first year there before migrating to the ocean. Coho are listed as an endangered species in the Russian River system; steelhead are a threatened species.

Bonham also announced that an ad hoc group of 71 grape growers who farm about 1,900 acres of vineyards in the watersheds have collectively agreed to reduce water use by 25 percent this year.

Bob Anderson, executive director of the United Winegrowers for Sonoma County, was instrumental in putting together the agreement, along with Doug McIlroy of Rodney Strong Vineyards and Joe Dutton, a Sebastopol area grower, according to Carolyn Wasem, a senior vice president at Jackson Family Wines.

Two Santa Rosa area vineyard owners and two in the Healdsburg area also signed water conservation agreements with the state.

“We’re at ground zero,” said Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore, in what he called an effort to “stave off the extinction” of federally protected fish. “This is not green-washing. I don’t believe in it. You don’t either. Everybody in the state is watching us now.”

The Camp Meeker water system, which delivers water to about 350 homes, agreed to release more than 63,000 gallons of water a day into Dutch Bill Creek until the rains come, while Sebastopol area residents Chris Panym and Michael Paine committed to releasing up to 1.6 million gallons of water into Green Valley Creek.

Camp Meeker’s release, which amounts to just 44 gallons a minute, has boosted Dutch Bill Creek’s flow to .05 cubic feet per second at a flow gauge where the creek was dry at this time last year and was .012 cfs the two previous years, Corinne Gray, a Department of Fish and Wildlife environmental scientist, said in an interview.

David Hines of the National Marine Fisheries Service said that Green Valley and Dutch Bill creeks were wetter farther downstream, with cooler and more oxygenated water since the augmented flows started.

“It looks like conditions are way better than they were a couple of weeks ago,” Bonham said.

Supervisor Gore hailed the voluntary conservation commitments, also telling the crowd that the “biggest challenge is not to buy into villainization.”

“No one is exempt from the drought,” he said.

Local activists and some landowners along the creeks have blamed the perilously low water levels on vineyard expansion, which has nearly doubled the acreage covered by grapevines in the last 25 years, reaching nearly 60,000 acres last year.

That angst was heightened when the State Water Resources Control Board in June imposed sweeping new water conservation rules, including bans on sprinkling lawns and washing cars, on thousands of landowners in the Dutch Bill, Green Valley, Mill and Mark West creek watersheds, but exempted vineyards from the rules.

At a public meeting held by the water board in July at Occidental, one man said the rules were “doomed to fail because the main culprits are not included.”

Asked about that concern, Bonham said, “All of us have contributed to where we are today,” including rural residents and vineyards.

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

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