Muddied Waters

Water wars in California usually pit north against south, but on the North Coast, grapes suck up groundwater like never before. As water becomes scarce, some communities are finally starting to do something about it. A 2002 state Department of Health Services report reviewing Mendocino County water districts calls vineyard expansion in Redwood Valley “nearly totally” responsible for a 39 percent increase in use of the Russian River District’s water rights there. The same report points out that the Hopland 1,500 consumers use 83 percent more district water than do Ukiah’s 15,649 residents. Hopland’s water district covers a small unincorporated village and a valley dominated by wine grapes, including Fetzer’s and Brutacao’s vast vineyards.
Surprisingly little is known about the amount of water diverted from ground and surface resources across Northern California’s primary wine-producing regions. That, says Chuck Bonham of Trout Unlimited, is the major obstacle to protecting fisheries like steelhead and coho. “Knowing more about stream flow, who is diverting and when, if dams exist and where, whether people are taking without a permit … this is the 800-pound gorilla in the room.”
Only recently have agencies tried to record how much water fisheries need. Previously, the cumulative effect of small-scale projects was not studied. When hundreds of start-up vineyards mushroomed in Lake, Mendocino, Sonoma, and Napa counties over the past decade, all their 5-acre-foot ponds together contributed significantly to the fisheries’ decline, says Trout Unlimited’s Stan Griffin.
There is also the problem of unauthorized diversions. Flyovers of the Russian and Navarro river basins in the late ’90s revealed around a hundred illegal diversions in each area.
Julie Gantenbein of the National Heritage Institute asserts that many vineyards file for permits only after building their irrigation systems and, she says, “new vineyards are the most water-intensive.” Officials at the state Water Resources Control Board confirm that there is a “common practice of pre-constructing projects before water-right permitting.” Most applicants are vineyards already irrigating with the water they’re applying for. The agency acknowledges it merely requires unauthorized diverters to file for a permit. “They know about all these unauthorized diversions,” Griffin says, “but to the best of our knowledge, they haven’t done anything and don’t plan to do anything in the way of reparation. Generally, the water board will excuse them if their permit goes through.”
While the board has declared the entire Russian River and its tributaries “fully appropriated” from June through October, diversions, dams, and permit applications continue. Since 1995, Griffin has filed 85 protests of water rights permits on behalf of the coho salmon. Juvenile coho stay in the tributaries all year, so if the water warms or dries up, an entire year’s population is lost. “Meantime,” Griffin says, “there is plenty of water behind the vineyards’ dams. The state spends millions of dollars each year on salmon recovery projects, but what good do those do if there is no water?”
Poorly engineered reservoirs or carelessly constructed hillside vineyards can let tons of topsoil wash into waterways. Rector Creek watershed in Napa is estimated to be about half vineyards, after extensive vineyard conversion in recent years. Locals say its drinking water reservoir receives so much excess sediment that it has had to shut down during heavy rain. The new vineyards are mostly in red volcanic soil that does not support cover crops that retain topsoil. Recontouring the land for these vineyards prevents rainwater from percolating into the aquifers. Instead, the water runs right off, flooding the creeks with more and more sediment. Locals blame factors like these for the contamination of reservoirs such as Rector and Friesen Lakes, recently rendered unusable when the equivalent of 100 dumptruck-loads of soil ran off a one-year-old vineyard into the lake.
Still, many growers are taking waterway conservation into their own hands. Efforts vary widely, depending on regional climate, eco-mindedness, or the desire to enhance grape quality by underwatering.
Regulators and conscientious growers are hampered by the lack of an historical record. In Sonoma County, where neighbors blame vineyard expansion for drying up their wells, and vineyards blame urban development for the same, the county has just passed a resolution to monitor groundwater. Even better, the county is considering restricting both development and vineyard conversion on nearly 200,000 acres of timberland.

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