By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Much work remains to be done on a proposed Sonoma County program that would oversee vineyard and orchard frost protection in the Russian River watershed to better protect endangered fish, program supporters and critics said Tuesday at a Board of Supervisors hearing.
Supporters, including grape growers who teamed up with the county to draft the program, acknowledged that demands by state and federal regulators for a stronger stream-flow monitoring plan will have to be addressed.
“That has to be negotiated through. We’re starting to have a dialogue on what they (the resource agencies) want,” said Pete Opatz, a viticulturist overseeing 5,000 acres of vineyards in Napa and Sonoma counties for Silverado Premium Properties
Meanwhile critics, including some environmentalists and fisheries advocates, said the program so far had been crafted without their input and appeared to offer too little in the way of safeguards for fish.
“The devil is in the details on this ordinance, and the details aren’t there,” said Stephen Fuller-Rowell, head of the Sonoma County Water Coalition, a group of more than 30 environmental organizations.
Tuesday’s preliminary hearing on the program was designed to kick off a 30-day process in which county staff said they’ll be gathering input from the public on the program.
The first public meeting in that process is set for Wednesday, 2-4 p.m. at the county Agricultural Commissioner’s office, 133 Aviation Blvd., Suite 110, Santa Rosa.
The Board of Supervisors has set a Dec. 7 hearing to take further comment and possibly vote on the program, which if approved could take effect early next year.
“This is a draft ordinance and I think there is an expectation that it will be refined as we take in input from all of the folks that we expect to hear from over the next 30 days,” said Supervisor Paul Kelley.
Many county growers pull water out of the Russian River and its tributaries when temperatures dip below freezing in the spring, spraying the water over their vines and orchards to put a protective coating of ice on the new plant growth.
Water diversions for frost protection stranded and killed both coho salmon and steelhead in 2008 and 2009, according to federal officials. The strandings, prohibited under the Endangered Species Act, occurred on the Russian River and a tributary, Felta Creek.
Growers in Sonoma and Mendocino counties claim they’ve addressed specific problems that led to those strandings. But state regulators rejected their plan for a voluntary effort to protect the fish.
Tuesday’s hearing made it clear that, despite months of work, a joint effort between growers and the county to oversee Russian River water use for frost protection still has an uphill climb ahead.
Steven Edmonson, an official with the National Marine Fisheries Service, which oversees protected salmon and steelhead stocks, said his agency was sticking by its earlier opinion that the county program falls short. He said the agency would be working with staff to overhaul the plans.
“We need those assurances that it’s going to be real and effective (for fish),” said Edmonson.
Approval of the state Water Resources Control Board, which is preparing its own frost control rules, will also be necessary.
Feedback from those agencies and Tuesday’s discussion focused on three main issues:
– The scope of the stream monitoring efforts.
Though the program would include potentially dozens of stream flow gauges located throughout the Russian River watershed, only a fraction of those devices will provide immediate feedback on water levels.
Instead, most data would be analyzed after the frost season, too late to make a difference in any fish stranding, critics said.
Regulators have also indicated they’d like that data shared more regularly with the public, rather than in once-a-year final reports.
– Enforcement of the program.
Growers and the county say the state is ultimately responsible for regulating stream diversions. But state officials have said that any local frost program must have “the authority to kick bad actors out.”
The county says it would have the authority to order corrective action, fines and revoke frost control permits issued under the program. Whether those tools meet the state’s enforcement threshold is still uncertain, county officials said.
– The makeup and work of a scientific advisory panel handling the stream data.
Under the proposal, a group of growers called the Russian River Water Conservation Council will contract with the ag commissioner to purchase and maintain the stream flow gauges.
The analysis and reporting of that data, however, will be managed by an appointed panel of experts from the scientific community.
No growers or farming representatives will serve on that panel, county officials have said. But critics and regulators have still expressed concerns about the panel’s independence and the transparency of its work.
Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who among the board members expressed the most concerns about the program, also wondered if it would be another weight on the county’s already beleaguered budget.
As proposed, growers would fund both the permitting and the monitoring program through fees paid to the ag commissioner’s office.
But Zane said further analysis was necessary to ensure the county would not be taking on additional unfunded services.
“We’re taking off on a process here. This is not a final solution,” said Opatz, the viticulturist, acknowledging that changes are ahead.
But David Keller, who leads environmental groups that advocate for the Petaluma and Eel rivers, said he doubted whether the county had left enough time before the Dec. 7 hearing to make big revisions.
Keller and others repeated their opinion that the program requires a full environmental impact report.
“There’s a host of stakeholders that have not been involved in this,” Keller said. “If they’re not willing to do any substantive re-writes then what’s the point of having this conversation.”