Online update: Hearing in Russian River frost-protection case set for June

Posted: May 30, 2012

Legal petitions challenging the Russian River frost water regulation adopted by the State Water Resource Control Board last September will be heard in June in Mendocino County Superior Court in Ukiah. A hearing originally scheduled for June 4 will take place later in the month, attorneys said.

The issue involves a conflict between winegrape growers in Mendocino and Sonoma counties, who occasionally use their sprinkler systems in the spring to protect vulnerable grapevines from frost, and state and federal regulators who claim that the frost protection measures pull too much water from the Russian River and its tributaries, thereby endangering protected salmon and steelhead. 

Two cases were filed in October 2011 to challenge the regulation. The plaintiffs for the two cases are Rudy and Linda Light, winegrape growers in Mendocino County, and the Russian River Water Users for the Environment, a group of winegrape and pear growers in the two counties. 

The two cases were consolidated and will be heard together. Agricultural water users in the Russian River watershed and elsewhere are encouraged to attend, said Devon Jones, executive director of the Mendocino County Farm Bureau.

Some of the main concerns with the regulation highlighted by the farmers include:  

  • It declares all existing diversions for frost protection unreasonable. The regulation would prohibit all diversions for frost protection unless and until the water is diverted under a water demand management program approved by the state water board.
  • It regulates all water used for frost protection in the Russian River watershed. This includes all pre-1914, permitted, licensed, riparian and groundwater rights.
  • It requires farmers to comply with stream flow standards that are not yet known, putting water users in the position of being told their use is unreasonable without knowing what would be considered reasonable.
  • It fails to determine whether any diversions actually pose a threat, but demands water users to prove their innocence.
  • In adopting the regulation, the board relied on vague science and ignored strong evidence that the regulation was inappropriate and unnecessary.
  • It ignores the priority of water rights. The regulation would declare all use of water for frost protection to be unreasonable and impose the same obligations on everyone, without considering priority of existing rights.
  • The regulation would not regulate other water users in the Russian River watershed, such as domestic or municipal diversions.
  • The regulation would require all diverters to collect detailed records on water diversions and stream flow stage, and provide information to the state water board for possible enforcement action.
  • It results in significant costs. The state water board estimates the regulation would cost a 160-acre vineyard up to $352,000 in initial capital costs and $36,200 in annual expenses. 

For additional information about the upcoming hearing, contact the Mendocino County Farm Bureau at 707-462-6664 or

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