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Sonoma County vintner Steve Kistler to pay more than $500,000 to settle creek pollution case

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A Sonoma County vintner has agreed to pay $579,700 to settle water code violations stemming from the release of muddy pond water into a Valley Ford creek that supports spawning fish, state officials announced Thursday.

Steve Kistler became the focus of enforcement action after officials traced the April 2013 sediment discharge to Bodega Highway property the longtime vintner owns east of the historic Watson School.

Officials said Kistler directed an employee to pump water from a partially constructed pond into a second, smaller pond, which then overflowed, spilling an estimated 739,910 gallons of turbid water into a tributary of Salmon Creek.

The water appeared so milky that officials with the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board and other investigating agencies at first surmised that the source had to be a dairy, said Stormer Feiler, an environmental scientist with the water board’s North Coast region.

He said the environmental impacts may have lasted as long as six days and likely killed juvenile coho salmon and steelhead trout living in the creek.

Kistler on Thursday responded to calls and emails seeking comment with a written statement in which he expressed “regret” for the incident.

“I have lived in the Salmon Creek watershed since 2000, and I care deeply about maintaining its integrity,” Kistler stated.

Salmon Creek flows into the ocean north of Bodega Bay.

Kistler founded his eponymous winery in 1978, according to the company’s website. The winery today is known for producing high-quality pinot noir and chardonnay wines.

According to Feiler’s report, Kistler told the state scientist after meeting with him at the Bodega Highway vineyard in April 2013 that he needed to drain the larger pond in order to finish work on it.

Feiler wrote that Kistler and the employee he directed to do the pumping acknowledged they were aware that water was overflowing the smaller pond into a tributary leading to the creek.

Kistler on Thursday stated that he stopped the release of water once he realized it had reached Salmon Creek, which he stated is a mile away from the pond.

The turbidity in the creek lasted “for a day,” he said in the statement.

Feiler, however, stated in his report that Kistler and his employee “made no effort to stop or mitigate the discharge once it began.”

Feiler stated the incident could have been avoided had the men pumped the water to nearby fields or other appropriate land-based disposal areas, or by simply allowing the water to evaporate until the places needing additional construction work were exposed.

The settlement agreement requires Kistler to immediately pay $322,498 to the State Water Resources Control Board’s cleanup and abatement account.

The remaining $257,202 will go toward the completion of two environmental projects in the Gold Ridge Resource Conservation District, which includes the Salmon Creek watershed.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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