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Regulators to monitor Russian River frost diversions

By BOB NORBERG THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Published: Friday, March 5, 2010 at 6:41 p.m. Last Modified: Friday, March 5, 2010 at 6:41 p.m. With bud break expected next week and the need for frost protection looming, state and federal regulators will be closely watching North Coast grapegrowers to make sure there is no repeat of previous fish kills.

The emphasis on enforcement is meant to avoid the fish-threatening drain on the Russian River that occurred in 2008 and 2009 when growers turned on their sprinklers to protect their vines as temperatures dropped below freezing.

“We have said that the Russian River would become one of the top priorities for enforcement,” said Bill Rukeyser, a state Water Resources Control Board spokesman. “It does not have to be an unauthorized diversion. Even if you have a valid permit, you don’t have the right to suck the river dry.”

Growers were told a week ago by the water board and the federal National Marine Fisheries Services that the agencies will be aggressively monitoring creek and river levels and looking for illegal pumping.

The state water board considers frost protection a “beneficial use” of Russian River water and has no intention of prohibiting the practice, but it does want it coordinated, Rukeyser said.

Any regulation would affect growers with vineyards next to the Russian River from Ukiah to Forestville. In the past two years, they have spent millions of dollars on building reservoirs, sinking new, deeper wells and buying wind machines to avoid taking water in ways that impact the Russian River during cold spells.

“Farmers have stepped up,” said Pete Opatz, a viticulturist overseeing 5,000 acres of vineyards in Napa and Sonoma counties for Silverado Premium Properties. “If there was an issue and it was pointed out, they fixed it. Ninety-five percent are participating in our frost program.”

Opatz said his company has spent $400,000 digging new wells and $980,000 on 35 wind machines.

Mendocino County growers constructed eight new reservoirs, two of them built by Fetzer Vineyards in Hopland at a cost of $750,000.

Most will provide four to five days of frost protection before having to be refilled from the Russian River.

New weather stations give more accurate and up-to-date information to Mendocino and Sonoma County growers, who now coordinate their water use practices with the Sonoma County Water Agency, which regulates releases from Lake Mendocino.

The Water Agency has installed flow gauges in the Russian River near Ukiah to be able to quickly detect drops in river levels.

“Fish and agriculture can co-exist,” said Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission. “We just have to learn how to do that moving forward.”

Some Sonoma County vineyards are showing signs that by next week vines will begin pushing out buds that will be susceptible to the freezing temperatures that arrive in March and can last until May.

To protect the burgeoning crop, growers at the first signs of frost will turn on pumps and spray water over the buds, encasing them in ice and keeping them at a constant 32 degrees even as temperatures around them plummet.

Usually the sprinklers are turned on at 4 or 5 a.m. and remain on for an hour or two until the temperatures rise enough for the ice to melt from the buds.

In 2008 and 2009, however, an unusual number of freezing mornings caused some growers to turn on the water as early as 10 p.m. the night before, Frey said.

The water use caused a sudden drop in the Russian River and its tributaries, stranding and killing a coho salmon in Felta Creek and steelhead in the Russian River, violating the federal Endangered Species Act.

It led to a confrontation last April in Sacramento, where federal regulators called for an immediate ban on the use of water for frost protection and growers pleaded to be allowed to solve the problem themselves.

The water board at that time ordered that a task force of regulators and growers be formed to alleviate the problem. But there are now proposals by the water board staff that would set up an oversight committee or coordinate the use of water for frost protection.

Many in the Sonoma County agricultural community are unhappy with the prospect of stepped-up regulations.

“In this water frost issue, the model the agencies are coming up with is more heavy-handed enforcement and ‘we are not interested in working with you,'” said Lex McCorvey, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau. “That concerns growers, they are trying to do the right things.”

This year the frost dangers appear to be less threatening.

After two dry years, rainfall this year is at near normal levels, filling Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma to raising water levels in the Russian River and Dry Creek.

The recent March have moistened vineyard soils, which will better hold heat.

“We have a lot of reservoirs up and operational we didn’t have last year, we have growers who will be able to frost protect out of ponds and not the river,” said Sean White, general manager of the Russian River Flood Control and Conservation Improvement District. “We have a full reservoir and we have higher instream flows. There should be plenty of instream flows to handle whatever diversions are necessary.”

Still, it will be a critical year to demonstrate that the growers’ measures will work.

“I think every regulator you can think of will be watching it carefully this year, but the situation we have to manage is the easiest one,” White said. “It will get plenty of attention, but it will be easier to deal with because we are not in a drought any more.”