By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A key part of Sonoma County’s recently approved program to oversee agricultural frost operations in the Russian River watershed has been derailed after contract negotiations between the county and grape growers broke down last week.
The disagreement centers on grower concerns about the water monitoring and reporting work seen as central to the overall program, which aims to allow water diversions for frost control while protecting stream flows for endangered salmon and threatened steelhead.
Among the hundreds of growers who would be affected by the program, a small group including John Dyson, a high-powered Healdsburg vintner, objected to any reports that would identify how much water is being taken from the river by individual growers, sources involved in the talks said.
The negotiations fizzled after the nonprofit group representing growers, the Russian River Water Conservation Council, endorsed those objections and proposed a contract revision that would have withheld growers’ names from reports, sources said.
County negotiators rejected that proposal, which would have changed the policy endorsed by the Board of Supervisors when it unanimously approved the program in December.
The growers’ group also balked at a last-minute county request for legal protection from any lawsuits from growers on fees associated with the program. Growers said they can’t afford to indemnify the county.
The breakdown raises the likelihood of growers next year facing more stringent state rules on frost water, a scenario they’d hoped to avoid through tighter local oversight.
Both sides expressed disappointment with the outcome last week but downplayed the failure.
“We just flat ran out of time,” said Doug McIlroy, director of winegrowing at Rodney Strong Wine Estates and one of two grower representatives who participated in contract talks.
However, a federal fisheries official who lent his tentative support for the program last year said that growers had reneged on their earlier support for the monitoring and reporting.
“We negotiated in good faith, (growers) agreed to it and the Board of Supervisors voted on it. This is kind of a breach of trust,” said David Hines, a Santa Rosa-based water policy coordinator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, which oversees salmon and steelhead stocks.
Pete Opatz, the other grower representative, said the local effort was not losing any steam.
“What we lost this year, it’s unfortunate, but we still have a (program) moving forward,” said Opatz, a viticulturist with Silverado Premium Properties.
Starting March 1, growers will be required to detail their types of water diversions, including those from streams and wells, and the crop acreage they protect from frost. But they will not be required to disclose real-time details about the timing and the volume of diversions.
A monitoring and reporting program could be added by next year, county and ag representatives said.
“The phased approach is going to give us the opportunity to work out those tweaks,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman Efren Carrillo.
Yet critics described the impasse as a fatal blow that warrants abandoning the program. They’ve accused the county and growers of closed-door collusion and said their efforts would fail to protect fish.
“The whole thing has been a sham to begin with,” said David Keller, a Petaluma environmentalist and river advocate.
The Board of Supervisors is set to approve fees connected to the program in an afternoon hearing today. It has put off any action on the contract with the growers’ group.
The change is an abrupt turnabout for a program that appeared to have wide support from the ag community as well as buy-in last year from state and federal regulators and the group Trout Unlimited.
The removal, even if temporary, of the monitoring and reporting work, makes that support shaky, some of those stakeholders said.
“If this cannot be resolved, it will be an issue with us,” said Dave Clegern, spokesman for the state Water Quality Control Board.
The agency expects to issue new rules on frost water use next year. Growers had hoped a county program could stand in for those regulations locally.
But the current package, without details on individual growers’ water use — seen by regulators as the key tool in fixing diversions they claim stranded and killed salmon and steelhead in the Russian River watershed in 2008 and 2009 — won’t suffice, state and federal officials said.
“The writing is on the wall. They’re going to have to start reporting water use,” said Hines, the federal fisheries official.
The eleventh-hour change could affect talks with growers down the road, he said.
Those familiar with the contract negotiations and talks among growers said the catalyst behind the shift on water diversion studies was Dyson, owner of Williams Selyem winery in Healdsburg.
He and his Sacramento-based attorney, Jesse Barton, threatened to shut down any program if it went forward with studies reporting on individual growers’ water use, they said. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they said they did not want to harm future negotiations on the frost program.
Dyson, a former deputy mayor of New York City who also served as an appointee in New York state posts overseeing commerce and agriculture, refuted the claims in a phone interview from New York on Monday.
“I don’t think there’s any divergence of opinion on this,” he said about the growers’ new stance. “We’re unanimous in this.”
The eldest son of a successful businessman and philanthropist, Dyson has been a behind-the-scenes force in questioning frost water rules.
He bankrolled a private study by a Sonoma State University professor last year who concluded state regulation of frost measures would cost the California economy $2 billion annually. State water officials and fish advocates said the study overestimated the reach of regulations and their impact on crop yields.
Dyson said he was not opposed to monitoring stream diversions but said reports on those findings should not include growers’ names without their consent.
“It’s so you don’t give growers the impression that it’s a witch hunt,” he said. “I think I know something about public policy … If this is a voluntary program, it has to be voluntary.”
County officials said they would work with growers to reach some agreement over the next year. But any county program will have to make public the data collected and growers names, officials said.
“We can’t hide information,” said Peter Rumble, a county administrative analyst who has overseen planning for the frost program. “It’s the county’s position that that information must be publicly available. That’s always been our position.”