Vineyard Frost Protection Deadline Nears

Regulations for water use and monitoring in Russian River counties go into effect Feb. 1

by Andrew Adams
A differential-pressure transducer measures the weight or pressure of water above the sensor.

Santa Rosa, Calif.—The Feb. 1 deadline has been pushed back a few times because of various legal challenges, but this year growers who use water for frost protection near the Russian River in Mendocino and Sonoma counties will need to make sure they’re in compliance with a state-mandated water-use plan.

The required plan, known officially as a “water demand management plan” or WDMP, stems from an incident in 2008 when several juvenile salmon were found dead or stranded in pools of water along the banks of the river during a record-setting dry and cold period in March. Biologists with the National Marine Fisheries Services extrapolated from the number of fish that had been found that several thousand had died in total. Officials blamed a sudden drop in the height of the river to growers drawing water to protect their vines during a severe frost event.

Despite growers taking steps to minimize the risk to fish in the advent of another severe frost, the state Water Board moved forward with adopting a management plan in 2011. The plan stipulated that if growers were going to use water in the Russian River watershed for frost protection from March 15 through May 15 they’d have to do so in compliance with the new plan that required monitoring of the Russian River’s main channel flow and water level as well as its tributaries. Plan administrators are required to work with fish agencies to determine areas of particular risk to fish stranding, notify growers when rainfall and flow conditions could increase these risks as well as prepare annual risk assessment reports.

A few growers responded with lawsuits, and implementation of the new regulations stalled as the legal challenges wound their way through the courts. On Oct. 1, 2014, the California State Supreme Court ruled in favor of the State Water Board, and growers had to make plans to comply.

‘Governing bodies’ for management plans

russian river watershed
Russian River Watershed

In Sonoma County, growers and county officials opted to comply as a unified group and took steps to administer the plan through the county’s Agricultural Commissioner’s office and the newly formed Russian River Water Conservation Council.

The county passed a 2011 frost regulation that required growers to register; that information was then used as an inventory for who would be affected by the management plan. A private group, the North Coast Water Coalition, was put together to administer a Sonoma County management plan. The coalition is led by Cort Munselle, who runs an engineering and vineyard-development firm in Healdsburg, Calif. Growers pay $5 per acre of frost-protected acreage to join the group and be part of its management plan.

Property owners who choose not to join must create their own management plan to comply with the regulation or risk losing their permit for frost water. “We’re obviously advocating for people to get this done quickly,” said Pete Opatz, vice president of vineyard operations at Silverado Investment Management Co. and the owner of Route 128 Winery in Geyserville, Calif. Opatz has played a central role in educating and advising growers about the proposed management plan.

Because of the county regulation, Opatz said he expects more than 90% of the vineyard owners in Sonoma County will be in compliance with the regulation. “I think what’s important (is) we get into compliance with the state and continue our monitoring that we’ve been doing all along,” he said.

Opatz said growers in the watershed already have made several other changes, which have lowered the risk for fish. Many have installed ponds that reduce their need to draw from the river or its tributaries, installed additional water-monitoring equipment and made other improvements. “My company has spent well over $1 million removing direct diversions from the Russian River because of this issue,” Opatz said. “There’s been a lot of changes since 2008.”

In Mendocino County, there had been no governing body to provide a means toward compliance, so those with property along the main channel of the river are creating individual management plans. The main channel already has an existing infrastructure of stations to provide monitoring, and Devon Jones, executive director of the Mendocino County Farm Bureau, said she’s hopeful that growers will be able to use the stations to get the data necessary for compliance with the plan. “None of us really have a complete idea of the gauging or where we should put our resources,” she said. “Our concern is to keep this economically viable.”

Fish Friendly helping Mendocino
For those on the many tributaries throughout the county, they’ve opted to work with the California Land Stewardship Institute, which runs the Fish Friendly Farming program.

Executive director Laurel Marcus said many of these growers already are certified through the Fish Friendly Farming program, so Marcus said it made sense for the institute to serve as the governing body. She said she’s currently working on an inventory of all the properties and the owners to submit to the state by Feb. 1. Once that list has been submitted, Marcus said she has about three more months to get the remaining properties listed before the state can enforce the regulation. There are 5,000 acres of frost protected land along the tributaries in Mendocino County. 

She said the state has identified the tributaries that are a “high” priority for monitoring but hasn’t let it be known what it considers “medium” or “low” priority waterways, so she isn’t yet certain how many stations will need to be installed or where.

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