Farm coalition's plan aims to help fish, protect vines

Issue Date: December 2, 2009
Steve Adler

This new U.S. Geological Survey stream flow gauge near Ukiah will assist water regulators and farmers in assessing water volume in the mainstream of the Russian River.

Seeking to resolve the problem without additional regulations being imposed, a coalition including farmers, water agencies and stewardship councils has presented a plan to protect endangered salmon in the Russian River while protecting vineyards from frost.

The coalition presented its plan to the State Water Resources Control Board during a Sacramento workshop in mid-November. The 142-page document outlines in detail a number of steps designed to reduce significantly a repeat of a 2008 fish kill that occurred on a rare frigid night on the North Coast. Grape growers used their irrigation systems to protect vines from frost, but fishery agencies say the water diversions from the river and its tributaries lowered flows to the point that salmon were stranded.

The proposal results from a collaborative effort by winegrape growers, the Farm Bureaus of Sonoma and Mendocino counties, Russian River Flood Control and Water Conservation Improvement District and California Land Stewardship Institute, to manage the diversion and use of water for frost protection.

A panel of representatives of those groups made a formal recommendation to water board members at the workshop. The hearing was packed by North Coast winegrape growers and others who support the concept of resolving the situation without further government intervention.

There were a few detractors present as well, including a representative of the National Marine Fisheries Service who called for the state board to impose restrictions on water pumping for frost protection from the Russian River and its tributaries.

Making introductory remarks to the board on behalf of the growers coalition was Sonoma County Supervisor Paul Kelly, who emphasized the importance of protecting the fish while maintaining the winegrape sector in the two counties.

"The viability of steelhead and salmon are key in Sonoma County, as well as the viability of vineyards. We must ensure that both of these continue in our counties. This coalition has made tremendous progress in a very short time to accomplish this," said Kelly. "Despite the variations in the areas of Mendocino and Sonoma counties, it is clear that reducing the impact of stream flows for frost protection by implementing conservation measures is going to benefit the farmers as well as the fish."

In outlining their proposal to the board, the grower panel noted that much has already been accomplished to protect fish. There were two reported fish kills—one near Hopland on the Russian River and the other on Felta Creek, a tributary—that occurred on the night of April 20, 2008. Both situations have already been addressed through the voluntary efforts of winegrape growers.

Regarding the first incident, when there was a very rapid, 83 cubic feet per second reduction of river flow at Hopland, the growers and cooperating agencies formed the Upper Russian River Stewardship Alliance. It initiated the following actions:

  • Establishment of a pumping coordination protocol between the Sonoma County Water Agency and Russian River Flood Control District.
  • Funding for a new U.S. Geological Survey gauge that has been installed at Talmage.
  • Enhanced phone-in frost forecasting system.
  • Installation of telemetric meters for Russian River Flood Control District customers.
  • Funding commitments to construct new offstream storage ponds that will reduce instantaneous direct diversion demand by 87 cfs.

In response to the Felta Creek incident, the diverter has replaced an instream frost pump with an offstream pond that is recharged by a groundwater well. Funding was provided by the Northern California Wine Country Agricultural Water Conservation and Water Quality Improvement Program, with technical assistance from the California Land Stewardship Institute.

In addition to the upper-river alliance, which is comprised of Mendocino County members, a sister group—the Middle Russian River Stewardship Alliance—has played a major role in the voluntary work to resolve the problem in Sonoma County. Its efforts are being coordinated by the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, with more than 9,600 acres of vineyards in Sonoma County participating in the program.

The middle-river program includes management of diversions and use of water for frost protection on 13 watersheds.

Both the programs have set the following goals:

  • Promote collaboration among conservation organizations, resource agencies and water users.
  • Focus on conservation efforts.
  • Utilize independent, peer-reviewed science.
  • Educate the grower community on issues relating to the Endangered Species Act.
  • Provide technical and regulatory guidance.
  • Promote participation through education and information dissemination.

The panel stressed the willingness and cooperation being demonstrated by North Coast farmers through both their action and their financial support. For example, the panel said seven offstream ponds have already been constructed and many others are in various stages of construction.

"We have achieved our short-term goals and are moving on to our long-term goals that we feel are going to be very effective going forward, to preserve fisheries and allow us to manage our crops in harmony with the fisheries," David Koball of Fetzer Vineyards told the water board.

Further regulation is not necessary and could in fact hamper efforts to find a solution, he said, adding that a non-regulatory approach is more flexible for the different watersheds and diversions.

"We think that this is a management problem. Resources can be focused on solving the problem, not in fighting regulation. We have regulations in place, we have enforcement avenues in place and we really don't think any more are necessary. We have the momentum to move forward and solve the problem and what we are asking here today is that you allow us to continue in our work to solve this problem," he said.

Mendocino County Farm Bureau Executive Administrator Devon Jones described the long-term commitment to the program by the Farm Bureaus in Mendocino and Sonoma counties as well as the state organization.

"We are committed to this Russian River frost program since it supports the livelihood of our members and involves both the winegrape and pear industries," she said.

"Our Farm Bureau members have stepped up and become involved in the process and have been instrumental in communicating the importance of this issue to others. This is a program that has been designed by growers and is intended to be a workable solution to the problem that has been presented. Farmers are stewards of the land and a driving force behind a large portion of the local economy in Northern California. Without a viable agricultural industry, the impact will be felt by farmers and everyday citizens alike," Jones said.

Along with Koball and Jones, other members of the panel making the recommendation included Peter Kiel, water rights attorney; Doug McIlroy, Rodney Strong Vineyards; Pete Opatz, Silverado Premier Properties; Sean White, Russian River Flood Control District; Laurel Marcus, California Land Stewardship Institute; and Lex McCorvey, Sonoma County Farm Bureau.

"We don't need any more regulations. There are enough regulations already in place to protect the fish," said Janet Pauli, a Potter Valley winegrape grower and member of the Upper Russian River Stewardship Alliance board. "What we need is for the state water board to support us in our work. Protection of fish and use of water for frost protection are not incompatible."

The State Water Resources Control Board took no formal action at last month's workshop and has taken the proposal back to agency staff to analyze and make recommendations.

(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.