By ROBERT DIGITALE and BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday will review a new plan that attempts to protect endangered fish while allowing grapegrowers to continue using Russian River water to defend their vineyards from frost.
The just-released plan, developed by the wine industry and county staff, is being blasted by some environmentalists who say it would do too little to prevent fish-killing water diversions on the Russian River and its tributaries. As well, the proposal has drawn concern from federal officials who monitor endangered coho salmon and threatened steelhead.
“For our part, we cannot endorse a vineyard frost protection ordinance that lacks the means to establish a meaningful monitoring program and a transparent process,” Steven Edmondson, an official with the National Marine Fisheries Service, wrote in an Oct. 19 letter to the supervisors.
The county proposal is the latest attempt by growers to win approval of federal officials and the state Water Resources Control Board. A major question is whether state officials will back down on a demand that a local frost management program include quick consequences for farmers who break the rules.
The supervisors won’t take action Tuesday. Instead, the board is expected to set a Dec. 7 hearing on the plan.
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 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.
State water board members last winter rejected a plan by Sonoma and Mendocino county growers for voluntary efforts to protect the fish. Instead, the board members informally backed a staff proposal to forbid diversions unless growers join an approved water management program or show that their diversions would have a “negligible effect” on fish.
At the meeting, a staff member said any management program must “have the authority to kick bad actors out.” As well, the staff proposal called for “instantaneous” monitoring of diversions to prevent harm to fish.
The water board called for rules to take effect in 2011. But the state now is preparing to conduct an environmental impact report, with a meeting planned for Nov. 17 in Santa Rosa to discuss the scope of the study. As such, new state rules likely won’t take effect before 2012.
In response to the stand taken by state board members, grape growers asked Sonoma County supervisors last spring for help in creating a county frost protection program.
Grower leaders said the county should approve the program now and begin collecting key data on stream flows and water diversions.
“We’re looking for working solutions that actually protect the resource and allow farming to continue and be sustainable,” said Pete Opatz, a viticulturist overseeing 5,000 acres of vineyards in Napa and Sonoma counties for Silverado Premium Properties. Growers, he said, understand the issue is serious and either “you get out in front of it or you get run over.”
But critics said the plan was a backroom deal crafted without input from environmental groups and designed mostly to shield grape growers from scrutiny of their water use practices.
“We’re very happy that progress is being made on this issue,” said David Keller, director of the Petaluma River Council. “But growers don’t get to make the decision about how that gets done behind closed doors. This is not a private deal. The county and the grape industry is treating it that way.”
A key disagreement is how much instantaneous monitoring should take place.
The growers propose installing six to eight gauges along streams that feed the Russian River, providing instantaneous readings on water levels. More gauges would be installed and their data would be collected at the end of the frost season. Opatz said the cost would be enormous for full instantaneous monitoring and the money would be “better spent on building reservoirs and drilling wells” that actually could lessen the threat to fish.
But Keller questioned both the efficacy of the monitoring and enforcement efforts proposed.
Because most stream flow data would be analyzed after the frost season, any record of a sudden water level drop leading to a fish stranding would come too late to make a difference, he said.
Keller said he and others are pushing for a full environmental impact report on the proposed ordinance.
The County Counsel’s Office determined that a comprehensive environmental review was unnecessary, saying the ordinance and the water uses it permits will not have a significant effect on the environment.
County officials also have insisted that Tuesday’s meeting represents only an introductory step and that they remain open to changes before formal adoption of a program.
“We’re absolutely intending to reach out (for additional public comment) and be very genuine and open about that,” said Peter Rumble, an analyst with the county administrator’s office.
The makeup of the program’s scientific advisory panel overseeing data recording and reporting duties also remains up in the air, critics said.
County officials say it will be filled entirely by independent experts and not include any farming representatives.
But critics say it lacks any representatives from the resource agencies that preside over water and endangered species issues.
“This (program) has become ‘How do we provide cover for grape growers?’” said Keller, the Petaluma activist.
Representatives of Trout Unlimited and the Sonoma County Water Coalition were more reserved in their comments, saying they’d had little time to review the proposal.
They mentioned similar concerns to those raised by Keller, including questions about how stream flows will be measured, how that data will be made available to resource agencies and the public, and how the scientific panel will be composed.
“Despite those questions, I remain cautiously optimistic that the grape growers, agencies and other stakeholders will find common ground solutions that work for salmon and their businesses,” said Brian Johnson, a staff attorney with the group Trout Unlimited.