Frost protection could be curtailed to benefit salmon and steelhead

Issue Date: March 25, 2009
Steve Adler

Alexander Valley winegrape grower Dave Fanuechi checks a well in his vineyard that he uses to pump irrigation water to protect emerging grapevines when temperatures drop below freezing in the spring.

Winegrape growers along the Russian River on California's North Coast have been informed that they may not be allowed to turn on their sprinkler pumps for frost protection this spring, because of the potential danger to protected salmon and steelhead that may be brought about by a sudden drawdown of water in the river.

The State Water Resources Control Board, which claims administrative authority over agricultural pumping from the Russian River, has scheduled a public workshop in Sacramento for April 7 to receive information regarding potential impacts on Russian River salmon and steelhead from legal water diversions for frost protection in Mendocino and Sonoma counties.

In scheduling the workshop, the state board referred to a letter it received Feb. 19 from the National Marine Fisheries Service, which mentioned two fish kills (one in Sonoma County and the other in Mendocino County) that occurred last April during a severe frost. NMFS said a significant drop in water flow that night coincided with frost protection measures.

Winegrape growers in the region say that utilizing overhead sprinklers is the only effective method available to them to protect the tender young shoots that are emerging as their vines come out of winter dormancy.

David Koball, vineyard director for Fetzer Vineyards in Hopland, said he's very concerned. Koball will be one of the speakers at the water board workshop next month.

"According to the timeline from the state water board, we were told that they could implement a frost protection ban fairly quickly after the meeting on the 7th, so I don't know what is going to happen at that point," he said. "They could come back and say we can't use any more frost water or we may be able to continue as is. The worry is that if we have no water for frost protection, there are a lot of growers who don't have any other option for frost control in their vineyards. These growers have no other source of water for either frost protection or irrigation. It takes away all options."

Koball said he has been told by a meteorologist in Southern Oregon that this spring shapes up to be similar to spring 2008, which was very cold.

In the Alexander Valley, winegrape growers pump water from an underground aquifer using wells, many of which are located within a few thousand feet of the Russian River. One of those wells is situated in Dave Fanuechi's vineyard about 3,000 feet from the Russian River.

Fanuechi is a second-generation grower, farming land that his father bought in 1948. While they grew prunes in the past, they converted totally to winegrapes in the mid-1990s. The concern that he expresses about a potential ban on sprinklers for frost protection is representative of that held by most area winegrape growers.

"All of a sudden frost protection is being looked at as a bad thing. It is a perceived problem that we are damaging fish. Last year we checked the water level in the river and when everyone in the Alexander Valley was running frost protection on 3,000 to 4,000 acres on the valley floor, the river dropped approximately one inch. An inch is nothing," he said.

Fanuechi noted that vines are very susceptible to damage from frost and once the damage occurs it will affect the rest of the season, either severely impacting yield or destroying the crop altogether.

"If we aren't able to protect our vines and we lose them, we don't have a livelihood. If we are making payments on a ranch, we could lose the ranch," he said.

The controversy revolves around salmon and steelhead that spawn in the Russian River and its tributaries. According to the NMFS letter, "Coho salmon, Chinook salmon and steelhead all spawn and rear in the basin and all are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act." The NMFS said it is concerned that rapid depletion of water for frost protection may strand newly emerging fry.

According to Steven Edmondson, NMFS Northern California Habitat Supervisor, his agency has been working closely with the water board and area growers to address the issue.

"While we are exploring several promising long-term solutions, few practical ideas for avoiding additional take of salmonoids this spring have arisen. Given that we are likely to experience similar dry-year conditions this spring, and the need to protect crops from frost damage still exists, it seems imperative to act now in order to avoid a potentially widespread reduction in the reproductive success of salmonoids in watersheds where this is an issue," he wrote. "We therefore urge the SWRCB to take immediate action, such as implementing emergency regulations, to protect this important public trust resource from further harm."

In a related development, the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously last week to submit a letter to the state water board opposing any attempt to prohibit frost protection this spring in the Russian River drainage. Supervisors said frost could lead to millions of dollars in crop losses and cost hundreds or even thousands of jobs.

The water board points out that there are currently voluntary actions being implemented to protect the fish, including grower education activities and inter-agency coordination efforts.

"At the workshop, the state water board hopes to receive information about ongoing actions to reduce the impacts of frost pumping, that will help them to decide whether to adopt emergency regulations, standard regulations or take other actions," said Kathie Smith of the water board.

Board staff has invited speakers to make presentations on issues of interest. The board will take public comment. Depending on turnout, time limits on comments may be imposed to provide everyone an opportunity to participate. Written comments may also be submitted.

If a frost event occurs at some time during the next several days, growers should take all actions necessary to avoid a take of listed species, the board cautioned.

"Ideally, growers in sensitive areas should work together to schedule their diversions to ensure that stream flow is not depleted. The Division of Water Rights, the Regional Board, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Department of Fish and Game will investigate if we become aware of frost pumping that affects these species. The agencies are working cooperatively on investigations, and intend to work cooperatively on prosecutions, as appropriate," Smith said.

According to the water board, both federal and state laws are involved. The penalty depends on the nature and extent of the violation and on the remedies available to the prosecutors under the pertinent law. Penalties may include fines and criminal prosecution.

The April 7 workshop is scheduled to begin at about 11 a.m., following the board meeting earlier that day. Location of the workshop is the Coastal Hearing Room, on the second floor of the Joe Serna Jr. Cal-EPA Building, 1001 I St., Sacramento.

During a California Farm Bureau-sponsored trip to Washington, D.C., last week, CFBF board member Peter Bradford of Boonville discussed the situation with congressional and administration leaders.

"This is a clear example of how some of the regulatory issues that are being placed on agriculture during this time of drought have a huge impact," he said. "I pointed out that these regulations that we have to abide by are restricting the amount of water that we can use and they are restricting the development of storage.

"They are restricting food safety and food security down the road, because if we can't grow the crop because we can't pump the water or store the water, then the nation is going to have to get our food from somewhere else at greater cost and from a less secure food source," Bradford said.

The California Farm Bureau has been talking with the state water board to try to resolve the issue, said CFBF Director of Water Resources Danny Merkley.

"We're working to find solutions for everyone, fish and farmers alike," he said.

Richard Rued, a fourth generation winegrape grower in Sonoma County, said the frost danger on the North Coast could extend into mid-May.

"Frost is kind of funny. It will move around and hit one area and not another. It is going to be a real problem and I'm not sure what the outcome will be. Maybe we will have a warm spring and it won't be an issue," Rued said. "Hopefully there will be a resolution before the next frost season. But everything moves so slowly. There are so many agencies involved that to do anything is like walking through molasses."

(Steve Adler is associate editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.