Supes OK program to monitor water used for frost protection

Supes OK program to monitor water used for frost protection

A prolonged effort by agriculture interests to craft a program that would oversee local vineyard and orchard frost operations to help the Russian River’s endangered fish earned unanimous support Tuesday from the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.

The 5-0 straw vote almost guarantees the program will be approved in a formal vote set for Tuesday.

The decision marked a clear victory for grape growers, who have been working with county staff over the last year to come up with a program that would supervise use of stream and ground water for frost protection.

“I’m encouraged,” said Pete Opatz, a viticulturalist who has represented growers in the process. “It’s a first step, and there’ll be many more steps for (participation) by the community at large.”

The preliminary vote happened over the objections of some environmentalists, who said the plan was being rushed through without their input. Regulators and fish advocates who have voiced some support for the program also have lingering concerns.

How grower compliance will be enforced, who will own stream monitoring data and how the program will mesh with new state rules expected in 2012 were all unanswered questions in the latest proposal, speakers said.

“We do have some reservations and we would like to see those worked out,” said David Hines, an official with the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Spring-time water diversions by growers, who cover their vines and trees in ice to protect them from frost, stranded and killed endangered coho salmon and threatened steelhead in the watershed in 2008 and 2009, according to the agency.

To avoid such problems, as many as 100 stream flow gauges will be placed in the Russian River and its feeder streams.

But how many of those costly instruments will generate live, publicly available data is also still at issue. Currently only eight of the first 28 gauges will go live to the Internet. Others will generate data that will be available in summer, upon publication of an annual report, growers and county staff said.

The group Trout Unlimited would like to see more, if not all, of the gauges put out live data.

“We’ve always argued that having that data is maybe the most important thing in this program,” said Brian Johnson, a Trout Unlimited staff attorney.

Other late changes by county staff guarantee the UC Cooperative Extension, Sonoma County Water Agency and other resource groups a role in the process.

The state Water Resources Control Board will likely have final say over whether the program measures up. A letter of tentative support from the agency could come by next week, when county staff said they hoped to have more details ironed out.

Meanwhile, supporters said the county program will be an improvement over the current lack of supervision over frost water.

“I would hate to miss out on a 2011 frost season without this program,” said Supervisor Paul Kelley, who has been a guiding force in the effort.

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