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Measure C sparks debate over future of Napa County vineyards

Measure C sparks debate over future of Napa County vineyards

Bill Swindell, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Randy Dunn was worried about the future as he walked around his vineyards Thursday morning in the Howell Mountain wine region of Napa County.

Dunn has been farming the land since 1978, when he and his wife, Lori, bought a 5-acre parcel of cabernet sauvignon vines tucked around Douglas firs more than 1,400 feet above sea level. It was a time well before “cult cab” became part of the vernacular of Napa Valley and some prized wines sold for more than $1,000 a bottle.

Things have changed in Napa, Dunn contends. There is very little room left on the valley floor, he says, pushing rich investors and wine companies into the hills to carve out the remaining land left to plant vineyards in the country’s most prized wine region.

“They don’t know a thing about wines. They hire a project manager. They hire a vineyard consultant,” Dunn grumbled about some of his neighbors. “There is still a lot left to preserve. There is an incredible amount of hillside planting. Most people don’t see it because it’s tucked away somewhere. … Enough is enough.”

Napa County residents will determine if “enough is enough” on June 5 when they vote on Measure C. The initiative would limit vineyard development on hills and mountains to provide greater protection to watersheds and oak woodlands, the latter of which covered more than 167,000 acres, or about 33 percent of the county’s overall area before last year’s wildfires.

Read more at http://www.pressdemocrat.com/business/8282347-181/measure-c-sparks-debate-over

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Walt Ranch: Water concerns arise from Napa area vineyard’s plan to fell 14,000 oaks

Alastair Bland, NEWS DEEPLY

Residents are concerned that plans to cut down 14,000 oak trees to make way for grapevines will impact groundwater, fish habitat and climate change mitigation.

In the small community of Circle Oaks, California, a few miles east of the wine-soaked Napa Valley, residents are fuming over a wealthy Texas couple’s plans to cut down 14,000 adult oak trees and replant the cleared woodland with 209 acres (85 hectares) of irrigated grapevines. The project, opponents warn, will destroy fish and wildlife habitat, reduce the environment’s resilience to climate change, and drain groundwater reserves.

“They’re going to be using about two times the water our community uses,” says Ron Tamarisk, who has lived in the small town of Circle Oaks with his wife, Nancy, since the 1960s. Tamarisk says the community’s wells have never run dry before, but locals are concerned the proposed vineyard will deplete their supply.

“This is going to dewater Milliken Creek,” says Chris Malan, who lives in a rural unincorporated area just east of the city of Napa and very close to the project site. She is referring to a stream that feeds Milliken Reservoir, from which the city of Napa receives water.

The couple behind the project, Craig Hall and Kathryn Walt Hall, are already well established in the local wine industry. Craig Hall, who has led a career in Texas as a real estate developer, told Dallas News in 2014 that he expected to sell as much as $50 million in wines in 2015, mainly through the couple’s Hall and Walt wine labels. Now, he and his wife’s new project, first introduced in 2006, is on the verge of becoming reality. The proposal to expand their Walt Ranch vineyard was approved in December by Napa County’s board of supervisors.

Locals are outraged by the county’s lenience toward the wine industry in general, which many sources claim exerts political influence over county decision making.

“If this project goes through, it establishes a precedent that a rich newcomer can come in and get their way,” says Randy Dunn, a resident of the small town of Angwin, in the hills northeast of Napa. Dunn is also a winemaker. He grows 35 acres of grapes, mostly cabernet, and says he felled a single oak tree to plant his current vines in the mid-1990s.

The Walt Ranch developers initially planned to cut down almost 30,000 trees. They downsized the plan last year in response to general opposition and to questions about the legality of how the new vines would be irrigated. There was talk for a time of pumping in water from another watershed entirely, that of Putah Creek, a Sacramento River tributary.

Read more at: Water Concerns Arise from Napa Area Vineyard’s Plan to Fell — Water Deeply

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Extra-low summer flow in the Russian River proposed by Water Agency

Brenda Adelman, SONOMA COUNTY GAZETTE

Ready, set, go! Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) is off and running towards permanently lowering minimum Russian River summer flows forever. Once this occurs, the risk of water quality degradation that includes increased algae and possibly toxic algae, is a virtual certainty, along with all the other problems that entails. The river now suffers from excessive temperatures and excessive phosphorus and the only condition holding algae somewhat in check is summer flows.

Yet the Biological Opinion requires minimum flows in the lower river to be cut by as much as 50% between May 15th and October 15th. Minimum summer flows at Hacienda were historically set at 125 cubic feet per second (cfs); the proposed change can bring that down as low as 60 cfs.

Not only is algae likely to increase at that level, but any other unmonitored and unregulated toxins in the river can become more concentrated and also provide greater risk.

Biological Opinion set the stage…

The Biological Opinion was released by National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in 2008. It described Russian River habitat changes needed to compensate for possible degradation caused by Sonoma County Water Agency’s water supply operations from their two dams and reservoirs (Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma) and other operations.

Two salmonid fish species had been named in the late 1990’s as threatened (Chinook and steelhead), a third as endangered (coho), and as a result, the Endangered Species Act kicked in and the Biological Opinion is Federal Law. To our knowledge, it never considered other laws, such as the Clean Water Act, that govern water quality.

The Biological Opinion was never released for public input and response, nor addressed project impacts on the lower river between Dry Creek confluence and Duncans Mills. It was a result of a multi-year consultation between The Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE), the Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA), California Fish and Wildlife, and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). It was released and no changes were possible. We assume that any impacts addressed in this document will be mitigated without significant change to required flow reductions.

Fish Flow Project EIR…

While this current EIR by SCWA does give the opportunity for input, and comments will be responded to, and Directors (Supervisors) will ultimately decide on the adequacy of the EIR, we are not sure if there is a way to stop the project, as SCWA has virtually indicated that fulfilment of the requirements is mandatory in order to continue their operations and water sales.

Their Urban Water Management Plan states on page 1-4, “The Water Agency must implement the following general categories to avoid jeopardy and maintain the “Incidental Take Statement” provided in the Biological Opinion: Modifying minimum instream flows in the Russian River and Dry Creek.” (other items were also listed including changes to Estuary Management).

Yet, in the last seven years, SCWA attempts to implement the Estuary Project (create a fresh water lagoon for juvenile steelhead) barely succeeded once.

NMFS has failed to manage tributary flows needed by salmonids…

Rather than try to control the ever dynamic mouth of the Russian River, NMFS’s intentions may have been better served by focusing on the historical culprit for fish habitat loss, property owner draw down of summer creek flows (especially vineyards), where salmonids liked to spawn. (Many spawning creeks such as Mark West now dry up in summer.)

Instead, NMFS proposed a habitat management plan to create a fresh water lagoon in the Estuary by lowering flows throughout the lower river and establishing a channel that somehow blocks sea water from getting in and allows fresh water to slowly seep out. For seven years, the project has mostly failed, yet they are moving forward to permanent status anyway. (Conditions are seldom right to construct the channel appropriately.)

Saved water will serve new development in urban areas…

This proposal will allow more water to be stored in the reservoirs for water contractors to fulfill their general plan projections for new development. In fact, the recent 2015 Urban Water Management Plan stated that flows must be lowered or SCWA can be held responsible for takings of the fish (see above) and could lose their water rights as a result. We can’t help but wonder what consideration has been given to those laws that protect water quality.

Schedule of meetings and due dates…

Only one of the three listed species will benefit from the Estuary project (steelhead trout) and the Chinook may even suffer further decline from the lowered flows during their juvenile migration in spring (downstream) and adult migration in fall (upstream), because of higher temperatures, and excessive phosphorus. We hope many people will participate in this process.

Here’s the meeting and comment schedule: 

  • August 19th, Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) will release Environmental Impact Report (EIR)
  • August 24th there will be an “Open House” (information available but not a group meeting) at Monte Rio Community Center from 4-8 pm and in Cloverdale at Vets on August 22nd at same time.
  • September 13th is the big hearing before the Directors (Supervisors) in their Santa Rosa Chambers beginning at 3 pm. Please try to attend. This will probably be only opportunity to express concerns directly and give oral comments on document.

Source: Russian River Flow and Fish

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Sonoma County residents’ battle with wineries is about more than water

Geoffrey Mohan, LOS ANGELES TIMES

These days, the redwood-shaded creek by Laura and Ray Waldbaum’s house is a bone-dry path of rocks and gravel, its occasional stagnant pools a somber reminder of the salmon that once thrived there.

Fewer than 500 endangered coho now wend their way from a network of such creeks to the Russian River and out to sea, and the Chinook population is barely two-thirds of what it ought to be, according to wildlife officials.

The Waldbaums and many other rural Sonoma County residents blame wine: about 60,000 acres of vineyards, 439 wineries and 221 event centers that have permission to host 2,299 dinners, concerts, weddings and other events for as many as 32,176 people, largely under the guise of agricultural promotion.

Seven years ago, so many vineyards switched on their sprinklers to protect their vines from a spring cold snap that water levels in creeks feeding the Russian River dropped several feet in a matter of hours, suffocating 25,000 fish in two counties.

So when state water regulators this summer announced emergency drought restrictions to protect salmon in some of those same watersheds, residents were shocked to find that agricultural properties faced no water cutbacks.

Simmering resentment at the rapid growth of vineyards and wineries turned to fury against an industry that has a $13.4-billion impact on the Sonoma County economy. And it appears to have spoiled the party for wineries and growers who have embarked on a highly publicized effort to be the nation’s first wine region to be certified as completely “sustainable” by 2019.

That agricultural exemption is coming to an end, even if the war is not. The State Water Resources Control Board on Wednesday began sending “informational orders” requiring growers to provide details about where they get their water, how much they use and how they apply it. Growers still won’t have to match residents’ water use cutbacks, although some have voluntarily done so.

The two-week rollout of the regulations, which also cover wells, is being closely watched by the state’s $46-billion agriculture industry, which will face similar groundwater regulation over the next few years.

Read more at: Sonoma County residents’ battle with wineries is about more than water – LA Times

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State regulators approve water restrictions to aid Sonoma County salmon streams

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

With fish perishing in drought-diminished Sonoma County streams, state regulators said Wednesday they felt pressed to approve sweeping new limits on water use affecting thousands of rural landowners.

But farm representatives attending the State Water Resources Control Board meeting said part of the measure was regulatory overreach, while some west county residents said it didn’t go far enough. Others said the whole thing was rushed.

Water board members said they appreciated some of the complaints, but voted unanimously to establish the new restrictions affecting outdoor water use, and a requirement that all landowners submit reports starting next month that detail their use of stream and well water.

“This is a very extreme situation. There are already fish dying in the streams,” Corinne Gray, a state Department of Fish and Wildlife official, told the five-member State Water Resources Control Board. All coho salmon and steelhead trout need is a “trickle of water” between pools on the four creeks to survive the summer, she said.

The emergency regulation will apply, starting July 3, to about 10,000 landowners on 130 square miles across four watersheds: Dutch Bill and Green Valley creeks in the west county, Mark West Creek north of Santa Rosa and Mill Creek west of Healdsburg. About 13,000 properties will be covered by the rules.

Residents and businesses, including wineries, will be prohibited from using water drawn from creeks or wells for sprinkling lawns or washing cars, while irrigation of other landscaping, such as trees and plants, will be limited as it is in many cities.

Irrigation for commercial agriculture is exempt from the water conservation rules, an issue that prompted harsh criticism from several county residents attending the meeting and was acknowledged by Felicia Marcus, the water board’s chairwoman.

Read more at: State regulators approve water restrictions to aid Sonoma | The Press Democrat

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Rules to protect Russian River salmon opposed by Farm Bureau

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

“If we’re not addressing agriculture, do we really think we can keep water in the streams?” asked Don McEnhill, executive director of Russian Riverkeeper, a conservation group founded in 1993.

Sweeping state action to protect imperiled salmon in dwindling local streams and limit water use by thousands of rural Sonoma County landowners has come under fire from two sides, including farmers who say the move is heavy handed and from a river advocate who says the proposed rules should not exempt farms.

The emergency regulation, scheduled for consideration by state water regulators Wednesday in Sacramento, would apply to about 13,000 landowners in about 130-square miles of ground across four watersheds: Dutch Bill and Green Valley creeks in the west county, Mark West Creek north of Santa Rosa and Mill Creek west of Healdsburg.

If the measure is approved by regulators, residents and businesses, including wineries, would be prohibited from using water drawn from the creeks or nearby wells for sprinkling lawns or washing cars. Only gray water — from bathtubs, showers and washing machines — or captured rainwater could be used for such purposes.

The action would also require landowners to provide — on request by state officials — details of their use of stream and well water, a dramatic step in a state where unlimited pumping of groundwater has historically been deemed an inherent property right.

Farmers see that requirement as burdensome and of questionable value.

Read more at: Rules to protect Russian River salmon opposed by | The Press Democrat

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Turning water into wine

Will Parrish, EAST BAY EXPRESS

The unregulated growth of California’s wine industry in the state’s coastal regions is depleting groundwater supplies and devastating rivers and fisheries.

Along the border of Sonoma and Napa counties, roughly seven miles northeast of Santa Rosa, hydrologist and forester Jim Doerksen took me to the southeastern end of his house, where he has scrawled annual rainfall totals on his laundry room wall for more than thirty years. It was an early-spring morning, and fog had draped the redwoods and Doug firs in a ghostly gray on the north-facing slope above Doerksen’s home.

In the 2005–06 rain year, Doerksen’s gauge recorded 98 inches of precipitation. Yet, the water level that year in Mark West Creek — a tributary of the Russian River, historically known for its thrashing, silvery surges of salmon and trout — had declined by more than half.

The realization that his beloved creek was drying up, even in a wet year, remains clearly etched in Doerksen’s mind a decade later. As a former staff hydrologist for Santa Clara County, Doerksen is also keenly aware of what happened. He explained that the depletion of an underground aquifer, which feeds the creek, caused it to run dry.

“A fractured-bedrock aquifer lies beneath this part of the Mayacamas Mountain range, dispensing water through pores … in the sub-surface rock,” he said. “When the groundwater level drops below these pores, the aquifer ceases to dispense — you end up with a dry creek.”

On the northwestern edge of Doerksen’s property, a sign strung to a tree describes this problem even more succinctly and identifies the culprit: “Vineyards SUCK! Water.”

Historically, much of California’s wine industry had been centered in the Central Valley. But by the latter part of the 20th century, the notion that the distinct character of a particular vineyard is expressed through the wines produced from it had become a popular notion among American wine drinkers. Grape growers responded by touting coastal ridgetop vineyards as boasting California’s best terroir. And so corduroy-like rows of grapes marched up hillsides in California’s northern and central coastal areas.

The growth of hillside vineyards was a free-for-all. “When it comes to agriculture, there’s no statewide regulation that prevents oak woodland and chaparral fragmentation and habitat loss,” explained Adina Merenlender, a UC Berkeley Cooperative Extension specialist in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management who has studied the conversion of woodlands to vineyards in Sonoma County. “It’s discouraging.”

In upper Mark West Creek, the conversion to vineyards started with the owner of a multimillion-dollar dentistry consulting business in Marin County — named Pride — that installed eighty acres of grapes on a ridgetop where oaks had previously stood. The next person to plant a ridgetop vineyard in the area was Fred Fisher, an heir to the General Motors fortune. The coup de grace occurred when Henry Cornell, an investment banker from Goldman Sachs in New York City, purchased 120 acres and clear-cut the forests on his property to make way for a vineyard and winery.

Read more at: Turning Water into Wine | East Bay Express

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State seeks voluntary cut in stream diversions from Sonoma County landowners to protect coho

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

State regulators are asking about 650 landowners along Sonoma County’s four major coho salmon spawning streams to voluntarily reduce water diversions to protect the drought-imperiled fish species, which is hanging on after nearly going extinct in the Russian River two decades ago.

Letters issued jointly by the State Water Resources Control Board and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife were mailed this week to the landowners — primarily rural residents as well as some grape growers — along Dutch Bill and Green Valley creeks in the west county, Mark West Creek north of Santa Rosa and the Mill Creek system west of Healdsburg.

Survival of the coho is “at a precarious junction” in the fourth year of “the worst drought in recorded California history,” read the letter, signed by Scott Wilson, a regional manager with the wildlife agency, and Barbara Evoy, deputy director of the water board’s division of water rights.

“Every week is critical for these endangered salmon,” the letter stated, outlining steps — including use of alternative water sources, curbing lawn irrigation, installing low-flow household devices such as toilets and washing machines and releasing spare reservoir water — to maintain stream flows from May 1 through November or later.

“The fish need a minimum amount of water flow to live and these steps and cooperation are necessary for them to succeed,” the letter said.

The move amounts to the agencies’ first drought-related action this year on local stream use. It seeks voluntary commitments from 654 landowners to cut back on water drawn from coho breeding streams feeding into the Russian River. But the letter also warns that if voluntary actions are insufficient, the state could halt water diversions, a step known as curtailment that was imposed last year on the upper Russian River and other dwindling waterways on the North Coast and in the Central Valley.

Read more via State seeks voluntary cut in stream diversions from | The Press Democrat.

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Close to Home: A plea to North Coast landowners to help coho salmon

Thomas Howard & Charlton H. Bonham, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

From the moment they hatch, coho salmon fry rearing in the tributaries of Northern California watersheds such as the Russian River face an uphill battle for survival from predators, disease and lack of food in summer months before their migration to the Pacific Ocean.

This year, they face another devastating challenge — drought conditions. The drought is impacting businesses and people living in the Russian River watershed, too. It is impacting us all. But for the coho, there’s a way landowners and water rights holders can help.

In key tributaries of the Russian River such as Green Valley, Dutch Bill, Mill and Mark West creeks, surveys counting juvenile coho salmon in 2014 showed 97 percent fewer fish than in 2013. The loss was staggering. Few of the survivors made it to the ocean to feed, grow and eventually return, keeping nature’s chain of survival tentative but unbroken.

This year it’s critically important to help a new generation of fish survive. Juvenile coho rear in pools on these tributaries, and minimum flows are required to keep oxygen high, water temperatures cool and food production thriving in these streams. When flows get too low to keep pools connected, conditions deteriorate and the juveniles die.

This week, several hundred property owners and water right holders adjacent to these tributaries are receiving a joint letter from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the state Water Resources Control Board detailing how they can help with this challenge. May to December are critical months for these endangered salmon. We are urging property owners and water rights holders to work together in a voluntary effort to take just a minimal amount of water from these tributaries this year to give the coho a greater chance of survival than they experienced in 2014.

Through the governor’s leadership and executive orders, the Department of Fish and Wildlife created a voluntary drought initiative. Last year, we negotiated 22 voluntary agreements with landowners across the state. Fish and Wildlife signed these voluntary agreements and provided the willing partners regulatory coverage under the California Endangered Species Act for a specific time period.

We’ve already seen success when we have informally asked some Russian River water users to assist. In early April, we learned that some coho were trapped in a pool in Porter Creek that had become hydrologically disconnected and was in danger of drying up. E. & J. Gallo Winery agreed to release pulse flows into Porter Creek. Following that, tracking tags indicated that several hundred of those coho furthered their journey down the Russian River and toward the ocean.

We think that we can do this together with willing landowners across this watershed. There is a long-standing and strong commitment to stewardship of natural resources in the wine industry and in this region. We have taken the unusual step of publishing this public plea for help because we want to avoid a worse situation for all of us. In the absence of a sustainable voluntary commitment to not take water, the state water board may be required to act as it did in 2014 and this year with tributaries in the Sacramento River watershed and pass emergency regulations that compel curtailments by water right holders along these tributaries.

We remain hopeful these voluntary agreements will close the gap for this season and provide the juvenile salmon the necessary flow they need — and offer one less barrier to their survival for 2015. We appreciate the time and consideration of any landowners who take action and respond to our plea for help.

Thomas Howard is executive director of the state Water Resources Control Board. Charlton H. Bonham is director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

via Close to Home: A plea to North Coast | The Press Democrat.

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Study shows pot is sucking the Eel River dry

Linda Williams, WILLITS NEWS

California Dept. of Fish & Wildlife Study

Researchers from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife published a study in March on the impacts of marijuana growing on several Eel River segments including the Little Lake Valley’s Outlet Creek.

The researchers concluded pot growing has become so prolific in this region it is literally sucking the streams dry. The study found the quantity of unregistered water abuse was many times the registered water use in the areas studied.

Unlike regulated forms of agricultural, livestock, home and municipal diversions, the clandestine nature of Emerald Triangle marijuana cultivation means that growers have been free to drain the Eel River with few controls in place to prevent it.

Water hungry marijuana plants need maximum watering just as California’s Mediterranean climate enters its dry period and normal flows in area streams drop naturally.

By regulation, the Brooktrails and Willits water reservoirs, located on tributaries of Outlet Creek, can only store water for human use during the wet season, allowing all dry weather flows to pass through the dams to benefit the fish. For much of the last 10 years it appears these water releases have gone, instead, to support marijuana operations.

Read more via Study shows pot is sucking the Eel River dry.