River Watch Header Image

Wine Industry in Sonoma County

Artesa 6/24/03At a recent Praxis event featuring John Perkins where Perkins spoke in enthusiastic terms about movements in various regions of the globe, especially Central and South America, towards anticorporate, antiglobalization, sustainable forms of social, economic and political organization, I made a critical comment about the reluctance of local Sonomans to acknowledge the unsustainable practices and enormous environmental impacts of the local wine industry. I am an environmental attorney currently working on two cases involving wine industry water diversion practices which have resulted in the destruction of critical habitat for endangered fish species protected under the Endangered Species Act. The air of celebration that Perkins generated and some of the self congratulatory comments from the audience about the local community made me feel that there is an information gap regarding the local wine industry in relation to sustainability.

Sustainability is the capacity of a biological system to endure over time and is obviously affected by the ecological consequences of economic activity. Looking at every crucial ecological factor affecting the ability of the earth’s biological systems to endure and hopefully thrive over time, the wine industry is a model of unsustainable use of natural resources, product distribution and economic impacts.

1. Species Survival

According to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) De-watering of rivers and streams is occurring in Sonoma and Mendocino counties, and has been linked to diversions and pumping by vineyard operators. Recent studies correlate rapid and dramatic draw downs of flows in creeks with vineyard activities. (Kondolf, Deitch, and Merenlender 2006 & 2008; D. Hines National Marine Fisheries Service – April 29, 2009). According to a presentation by NMFS to the Regional Water Quality Control Board on April 7, 2009 entitled Scope Of Potential Frost Impacts On Salmonids: “Habitat conditions in 22 of 35 habitats are limiting production, including instantaneous flow reductions in spring. …. Population viability is low for all 3 salmonids in the Russian River….Coho Salmon are at very high risk of extinction.” Despite these widely recognized impacts of vineyard water use for frost protection on endangered salmonids, to the point of reducing regional populations to near extinction, the wine industry has relentlessly resisted efforts by the State Water Resources Control Board to regulate vineyard frost protection. In response to proposed frost protection regulation wine industry interests commissioned Sonoma State Economics Professor Robert Eyler to issue an Economic Impact Report, based on purely speculative assumptions, predicting devastating effects on the economic life of Northern California if the regulations are adopted. As a delaying tactic the Report proposed the formation of a committee to study more fish friendly methods of frost protection, with a strong emphasis on comparative cost. The basic underlying premiss was that the north bay wine industry is too big to risk the effects of regulation, regardless of environmental concerns.

Thousands of acres of oak woodlands , redwood forest and chaparral in Sonoma and Mendocino counties, prime wildlife habitat, have been destroyed by conversion to vineyards. In the 1990s I worked as a member of the Sonoma Mountain Preservation group to oppose vineyard development on 350 acres of state owned land at the Sonoma Developmental Center. State Senator Mike Thompson had been approached by a prominent local wine industry family to sponsor a bill to lease this valuable public open space to grow more wine grapes. The California Department of Fish & Game issued a statement that this land was part of the last continuous wildlife corridor in the southern Sonoma Valley. It took seven years but we finally protected that land under a forever wild easement.

2. Climate Change/Global Warming

Progressive ecological and economic thinkers, anyone with common sense who recognizes the reality of global temperature rise and its impacts, agrees that the only sustainable course going forward is to shift to more self contained local economies, for people to eat locally grown foods and buy locally made products as much as possible. David Korten’s Agenda For A new Economy is a clear concise presentation of this prescription. The wine industry operates on exactly the opposite model, displacing local food production to raise grapes for wine that is bottled and distributed world wide. Dairies and orchards have been replaced by vineyards because the land is worth so much more planted in grapes. It’s the ultimate fiscalization of land use, which generally works against human and ecological well being.

Planting so much land in one monocrop has made the vines more vulnerable to parasites than a diverse agricultural landscape, ergo extensive use of pesticides out of concerns about pests like the glassy winged sharpshooter, the darth vader of the insect world. I know several people who were caught in pesticide drift from vineyard spraying and suffered serious health effects. The industry has such undue influence over public officials that pesticide use regulation is seldom enforced.

Wine country tourism is a further source of excessive fuel consumption and climate impacts. It has brought with it enormous traffic flows from the expanded Sears Point race track and other events that draw huge inflows now that the Sonoma Valley and County are major tourist destinations, as well as the ongoing flow of wine country tourists. It may be unrealistic to expect most people to radically change their habits overnight, travel less and reduce their consumption of imported products, but if we don’t start to grapple with these realities, we are part of the problem and the prognosis is not favorable, even though the Bolivian Constitution now recognizes environmental rights.

The wine industry and associated tourism generate some mid range paying jobs but also many low paying jobs in retail, hospitality and vineyard operations. This forces workers to commute from areas with more affordable housing, often in older cars with higher emissions, adding further to climate impacts.

In every respect the wine industry has unsustainable environmental impacts. The most promising scenario is that the economic downturn will cause some vineyards to go out of production, which can then be converted to local food production. Hopefully the pressures of citizen lawsuits, regulatory action and public concern will force the vintners to limit their water use so that endangered fisheries can recover. If history is any indication, it will be a bitter struggle. When Georgia invited me to write this article, she said Praxis members would be surprised to hear of the destructive impacts of wine production. How is it that people can be oblivious to such serious problems in their immediate or nearby vicinity? This is a crucial question. The answer I’ve come to is that people tend to gravitate to the information they are comfortable with. Especially when people are reasonably well off under the status quo, they don’t want to hear about the need for change that will impact them directly. Without a greater willingness to engage in some serious soul searching around the ways in which we all contribute to the ongoing decline of our ecosystem and a commitment to make some effort to change our habits, support needed regulation and to recognize and call out the malfeasance in our own back yards, we have no reason to expect a positive future, despite the good works in other places. We live in the belly of the biggest beast here in the U.S. of A. And the wine industry is our local bete noir. In the immortal words of Walt Kelley, creator of the comic strip character Pogo, “We have seen the enemy and he is us”.

Jerry Bernhaut