Sonoma Creek watershed conservation grants ease vineyard erosion
Replacing three culverts on his 28-acre Sonoma Valley hillside vineyard won’t boost the yield or increase the price of his merlot, sauvignon blanc and zinfandel grapes, John MacLeod said.
“It’s hard for me as a farmer to spend money fixing this,” he said.
But with a grant from the Santa Rosa-based Sonoma Resource Conservation District footing 75 percent of a $26,000 conservation project to reduce erosion on his land, MacLeod is quick to acknowledge the nonfinancial benefit.
“It makes us better stewards of the land,” he said, standing amid the 20,000 vines planted since MacLeod’s family bought the ranch along Sonoma Creek in 1974.
MacLeod Family Vineyards is one of four Sonoma Valley vineyards that has qualified for a total of $250,000 in grants funded by the Coastal Conservancy aimed at improving water quality in Sonoma Creek. The other three are Jack London Vineyard, Wildcat Mountain Vineyard and Santo Giordano Vineyard.
The local resource district has an additional $663,850 in grant funds authorized by the State Water Resources Control Board available to vineyards in the 170-square-mile Sonoma Creek watershed that extends roughly from Kenwood to San Pablo Bay.
The watershed is a “high priority” for remedial projects because Sonoma Creek, which flows 33 miles from its headwaters in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park to the bay, is designated by the state and federal government as impaired by excess sediment, said Valerie Minton, program director at the Sonoma RCD.
Sediment washed into Sonoma Creek, an important stream for steelhead trout, settles in gravel beds, potentially suffocating eggs and filling in pools where juvenile fish must spend the summer, she said.
The grants enable the RCD to underwrite vineyard projects to control erosion, such as storm-proofing unpaved roads, as well as improving irrigation efficiency, removing invasive riparian vegetation and increasing storm water retention, Minton said.
Grants help landowners “achieve conservation outcomes greater and faster than what might be achieved through regulation alone,” she said.
In the Sonoma Creek watershed — essentially the same territory as Sonoma Valley — regulation is imminent.
The San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board is developing a new permit that will require vineyards in the Sonoma Creek and Napa River watersheds to implement plans to control or reduce sediment discharges and storm runoff, said Andrew DiLuccia, a spokesman for the State Water Resources Control Board.
The proposed permit will rely on third parties to help vineyards develop such plans, he said, explaining the board’s rationale for funding the grants. Grant applicants must enroll in the RCD’s LandSmart program, which provides landowners with technical assistance in designing conservation plans, Minton said.
The regional board is scheduled to release a draft of the proposed vineyard permit on June 30.
The $26,000 project at MacLeod Family Vineyards includes replacement of three culverts that carry water in narrow “ephemeral streams” that run only during wet weather across the land and down to Sonoma Creek.
When his family installed the culverts four decades ago, MacLeod said it was done without any technical assistance. “We said, ‘Hey, this is a low spot in the land, put a culvert in it and push dirt over it,’” MacLeod said.
Until the LandSmart study was done at his ranch, MacLeod said he was unaware of the environmental harm from culverts that are undersized and installed at the wrong grade.
Now he can point to a shallow, dry channel, nearly hidden beneath dry grass, and explain that erosion will cut into the ground about 10 feet uphill from the culvert each year.
“That’s a significant amount of soil coming off my property,” he said.
The project will also repair drip irrigation lines that have been chewed by coyotes and possibly pecked by crows for decades, a step that will conserve water, MacLeod said.
And it will install water meters on his well and the pump on a farm pond that holds nearly 1 million gallons of water. Within a few years, MacLeod said he expects the state will require all farm operators to have meters and report their exact water consumption.
Getting meters under the grant “takes some of the pain off the farmer,” he said.
Grants made under the LandSmart program require a minimum 10 percent contribution from the landowner, Minton said.
MacLeod agreed to put up 25 percent — $6,500 — and Minton said the larger landowner contribution makes the grant application more competitive.
“Grant funders want to see a local investment in the work,” she said.