Op-Ed: When a right goes wrong: Vineyard frost protection, river flows and salmon


Richard Morat is a retired federal fishery biologist, pursues a  conservation vocation and advocates for ecosystem sustainability.

An extreme frost in 2008 drove managers of budding vineyards to dewater reaches of the Russian River overnight. Water spray protects buds from freeze damage. Many juvenile salmon were killed by the dewatering. These salmon are protected by the Endangered Species Act, which requires that this not happen again.

The event spurred public resource agencies and other well-meaning organizations to rush to the rescue with plans for offstream storage that would reduce the need for simultaneous and cumulatively massive direct diversions from the river. The concept of diverting and storing water during wetter periods was sound, but it is not being carried out properly. Public agencies and organizations were too accommodating to the diverters and have made a bad situation worse.

The problem in implementation was in not defining “wetter periods.” To growers wanting to reduce costs, wetter periods means any time flow is in excess of the bare minimum that must be left in the channel. Unfortunately, this means that flows needed to maintain salmon populations will become less and less frequent and eventually all that will be left is an operation of extremes — either minimum flows or infrequent large flood flows. Minimum flow standards were not meant to be a long duration steady-state condition, but on the Russian they have become the norm.

Growers quickly realized that the offstream storage originally justified as an emergency frost-control measure could also be used for irrigation and heat control, further reducing wet season flows required for salmon. Many applications for changes in water rights to divert flows to offstream storage have been filed. Some have been approved by the state Water Resources Control Board. Likely many more applications will be filed in future years as growers seek to reduce costs. The challenge is balancing the expansion of water rights with the protection of other beneficial uses. Coming to grips with limits to growth is the challenge for all of us.

The answer to this dilemma is quite simple — require permits for offstream storage whereby the diverter can take only water that is surplus to the reasonable needs of other beneficial uses. For diverters to capture surplus water they need to take big gulps when the flows are well in excess of the minimum flow standards. This means investing in bigger pipelines and pumps to increase diversion rates and fill storage quickly during high flows when excess water is available.

We can accommodate growth in the wine industry without killing salmon in the Russian River, but it requires good faith on the part of the wine industry and a willingness to pay what is required to protect the environment.

Read more at: Close to Home: When a right goes wrong: Vineyard frost protection, river flows and salmon | The Press Democrat