Upcoming frost season means new rules for area grape-growers

Glenda Anderson, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Hundreds of grape growers and farmers in Sonoma and Mendocino counties are girding for the implementation of new state rules aimed at protecting imperiled fish in the Russian River by regulating stream diversions for frost protection.

With a three-year legal battle now concluded in the state’s favor, affected farmers will have to submit “water demand management plans” to the state water regulators by Feb. 1 and be prepared to implement those plans during the upcoming frost season — March 15 to May 15. Farmers are prohibited from drawing water during that time from the Russian River system, including wells dependent on that water source, without a plan.

“This year will be interesting. There are a lot of question marks” remaining about the rules, said Mendocino County Farm Bureau Executive Director Devon Jones.

Growers in Mendocino and Sonoma counties challenged the state rules in a pair of lawsuits, arguing that they infringed on growers’ water rights.

In Sonoma County, however, a majority of affected farmers have taken steps to comply with the rules, said Tito Sasaki, president of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau.

But “there are some others who are not aware” of what they need to do, he said.

Farmers can learn more about the rules at a workshop being held at the fairgrounds in Cloverdale on Nov. 24, he said.

The rules are meant to prevent endangered and threatened salmon and steelhead trout from becoming stranded and dying when farmers pump water from the Russian River and its tributaries during spring cold snaps. Water is sprayed on vines to create a protective ice shield when temperatures fall below freezing. But when numerous farmers pump from the river at the same time, it can cause water levels to abruptly drop, stranding fish on dry land.

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