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Water Fights: The Wine Industry versus Salmon

Shepherd Bliss,
Sonoma West Times and News Opinion
December 1, 2010

I appreciate your three informative November articles on the wine industry’s claim for the life-giving water without which native salmon would perish. I support the State Water Resources Control Board proposed regulation that would defend endangered fish from deadly practices by the wine industry.

The wine industry diverts water to protect its mono-crop from frost, which reduces water levels and kills salmon. Current self-regulated wine industry practices threaten the local survival of this key species. Who trusts a “self-regulated” fox to guard chickens?

Your Nov. 10 commentary by an attorney for the environmental watchdog group Northern California River Watch, Jerry Bernhaut, criticizes a speculative study by SSU economics professor Robert Eyler. “River environmental advocates,” according to your Nov. 4 news article, describe the study as “more wine industry propaganda than objective research.” David Keller of Friends of the Eel River says that to have academic credibility that study should have been peer reviewed, which it was not.

New York City’s former deputy mayor John Dyson, who now owns the Williams Selyem Winery, funded it. He warns that California’s new rules would “damage the entire nation.” Pardon this journalist’s skepticism about his inflated assertion. We do love our wine, including myself, here in the Redwood Empire. But most of the “nation” does not even drink wine.

Water board spokesperson William Rukeyser notes that similar regulations on the Napa River have existed for decades without creating “desolation and destruction” for their powerful wine industry. Water board Executive Director Tom Howard calls those regulations “reasonable and feasible.”

The wine industry speculates that some profits would be lost. The alternative is that lives would be lost, those of salmon, an indicator species whose health in our region indicates the well-being of our watersheds and ecosystems as a whole.

As a food farmer, I have a further concern with the excessive power of a profit-driven wine industry. Wine has become big business and its industry throws its weight around. Sonoma County’s agriculture and economy have become too dependent upon one crop. Mono-crops are dangerous; they are more vulnerable to be destroyed by a pest or by changing economics and tastes.

We derive benefits from wine. A moderate amount of wine would be fine, but we now have an economy dominated by this powerful industry, much of which is owned by global corporations based outside the county.

The wine industry claims that the new regulations would “force some vineyards out of business.” Some were planted in vulnerable bottomlands where they should not be. Now they want us to sacrifice salmon at the wine god’s altar?

The wine industry has reacted before with irrational fear. About a decade ago it alleged that the glassy-winged sharpshooter was a potential pest that could destroy the industry. So it proposed pre- emptive strikes by spraying deadly pesticides on people’s lawns and farms, without their permission, to kill the bug. This would have destroyed Sonoma County’s organic farms and worsened the health of vulnerable people.

Fortunately, citizens organized the No Spray Action Network and backed off the wine industry. The feared pest did not take the industry down. It’s time to support salmon, as well as redwoods and forests that the wine industry continues to cut down.

Before this special region was reduced to the mono-crop and commercial designation “wine country,” it was known as “The Redwood Empire,” a natural description. Redwoods and salmon are more important to the long-term sustainability of this area than more wine.

Around 100 environmentalists, alcohol producers, and water professionals attended a recent meeting on this issue. A next stage of this power struggle will be a Sonoma County Supervisors public hearing Dec. 7, 2:30 p.m.

Support the salmon and redwoods!

Dr. Shepherd Bliss teaches at SSU and has operated a fruit farm in the Sebastopol countryside since 1992. He can be reached at sb3@pon.net.

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