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RE: Turning water into wine, Chronicle article

This is a great article, and it ties together some of the water, fishery and watershed/groundwater management problems in current viticultural practices and our region.

Unfortunately, local reservoir and pond storage, usually built along small and ephemeral creeks, seeps, springs and streams on ranch properties, significantly interrupt normal flows and runoff from these sub-watersheds. As a result, there are in fact frequently unregulated but significant damages to those creeks, the streams they feed, and the Russian River (or other waterways) downstream.

This is the subject of a very heated debate at the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) going on right now, which compounds and intersects with the problems that you’ve read about with the SoCo Water Agency’s recently granted petition for “urgency low flows” in the Russian River. It’s not just low water levels in Lake Mendocino that are problematic. These mostly unregulated diversions of surface water for storage or direct irrigation, have proven to be a major cumulative problem for the Russian River. Trout Unlimited and Peregrine Audubon Society have petitioned SWRCB to get control of an out-of-control situation on North Coast rivers and streams. Under the California constitution, you cannot ‘own’ water but can only have rights to ‘reasonable and beneficial’ use of it; the SWRCB is the legal entity that regulates any one’s rights to use water, so clearing up this mess is up to this agency.

Right now, parts of the upper and mid- Russian River are “fully appropriated” (meaning all the legal water that can be taken is already granted); however, this is made worse by illegal and unpermitted diversions, leaving the Russian River ‘over-appropriated’ during the late spring through fall, when the rains start again. The Eel River diversions (through PG&E’s Potter Valley Project to the Russian River via Lake Mendocino) are used to subsidize and mask this overdrafting of the Russian River, to the detriment of the Eel River, its resources and population. The SWRCB’s task is to find and eliminate the illegal diversions, and they are ill-equipped to do that, and with many ranchers not wanting them to do anything at all. Thus, the upcoming public hearings at SWRCB on what to do, if they should do it, and how to do it, coming up on June 19th. Revised Notice of Public Workshop

The collective interruption and storage of the runoff by agricultural ponds and reservoirs means that the downstream flows are reduced. Part of the significant problems with the Russian River is a result of all these impoundments: they reduce tributary flows, which then damage spawning tributary streams (very important), the Russian River, and downstream legal water rights holders, and of course, salmon and steelhead during migration and juvenile stages and other public trust and instream uses.

In the Russian River basin there are many illegal and legal local reservoirs, and more unprocessed water permit applications than in any other river in the state. These small agricultural reservoirs, frequently not overseen by any regulators, also fill up with gravel and sediments that would otherwise flow downstream during storms, and as a result “starve” the lower waterways from receiving new gravels and cleaning the existing gravel beds necessary for fish spawning and rearing habitat. These sediment deprived runoff waters produce “hungry water” flows which then erode the banks and beds of these creeks as they flow downstream in storms.

“Hungry water” is water moving downstream that has lost, or is deprived of, its sediment loads. Since moving sediment takes energy from the flowing water, the resulting ‘clear water’ has more energy to erode banks and lands downstream, picking up sediments and debris from the banks and beds as it flows downstream.

Part of what happens in the Russian and Petaluma Rivers is a result of just that, and can be seen as downcutting and bank erosion of both the tributary streams and the river itself. Bad for fish, water quality, riparian habitat and groundwater. Most all urbanized streams and many tributaries of the Russian and other western rivers show these consequences.

The resulting erosion also causes loss of valuable topsoil, and the riparian trees along the banks that provide critical shade and nutrients for the creeks and streams. The erosion also cuts the stream beds down to a lower elevation, which then start to drain the associated groundwater into the lowered creek bed and result in lowered groundwater tables nearby. The reduced runoff also reduces the ability to recharge downstream groundwater basins’ permeable gravels, sands, soils and fractured rock.

Another issue with ranch storage is the water taken from streams, springs and creeks for “frost protection” for crops, in addition to water for irrigation. This water is also frequently unregulated and unpermitted, and contributes to the degradation of these streams and have all the downstream impacts noted above.

The consequence of all of these practices, in combination a host of other problems, such as water diverted for municipal and industrial purposes, gravel mining (of the very gravels and sands of the Russian River aquifer which store and cleanse the storm waters), polluted urban and road runoff, sewage discharges, clear cutting of forested slopes, loss of riparian trees and shrubs, high temperatures and a few other human-caused problems have led to the decimation of salmon and steelhead in the Russian and Eel Rivers.

So, enjoy that wine, but be aware that there are consequences of what methods are used to produce them, and that there are choices made by different vineyards as to what role they will play in either continuing damages, or in their role in the path to restoration of these precious and irreplaceable watersheds. We don’t get another watershed to live within. Ever.

David Keller
Bay Area Director
Friends of the Eel River