The Wine Industry’s Mendo Gofers
by Mark Scaramella, December 2, 2009
Glen McGourty, UC Extension Farm Advisor, Mendocino County branch, is paid out of tax money to give free technical advice to grape growers about how to nurture their thirsty grapes.
McGourty's advice is water-intensive. The growers plant shallow rooted rootstock so growth can be controlled and pesticides delivered via drip irrigation lines. Shallow- rooted grapes are more vulnerable to frost than the old-style, deep-rooted, dry-farmed grapes such as those grown by Mendocino County’s original grape growers, those hardy sons of the soil, pre-Prohibition Italians. And they can be planted in more frost-prone areas where more water is needed to protect them from spring freezes.
Last week McGourty and his fellow local shills traveled to Sacramento where they informed the State Water Resources Control Board that any regulation of their water intensive irrigation and frost protection methods could retard high end booze production.
McGourty was accompanied by current Mendocino County supervisor John McCowen and former Ukiah supervisor Richard Shoemaker. The latter now sits on the Russian River Flood Control District Board which exists for the primary purpose of ensuring that inland Mendocino County grape growers get more than their fair share of Eel and Russian River water. Shoemaker’s fellow board members are more vineyard-friendly than he is, if that’s possible.
Elected in theory to represent the welfare of all their constituents, and magically regarded by many of those constituents as “liberals” and “environmentalists,” McCowen and Shoemaker function mainly as advocates for one enterprise — the wine industry and its ungaged, unregulated draws on the Russian River.
The hearing in Sacramento was prompted by a fish-kill near Hopland last spring when several vineyards simultaneously turned on their huge pumps for “frost protection,” sucking up so much water from that stretch of the Russian River that there was no water left for the stranded fish, which are now nearly extinct in the county.
Some environmental groups were at the hearing to say that something should be done about the grape people’s habit of “self-regulating” themselves into massive fishkills.
McGourty, McCowen and Shoemaker, accompanied by a hyper-indignant grape grower named Dennis Murphy, opposed water regulation, *any* water regulation. The three of them insisted that the wine industry has built ponds to store water for frost protection and that an “educational” program has been devised to inform grape growers that the wise use of water is, well, wise.
Anderson Valley grape growers have built hundreds of ponds which have done them little good; they still got socked by the spring freeze. The ponds may theoretically help the fish by leaving more water where God put it, in rivers, but only if the wine industry limits itself to taking water during high winter flows. And even then, not too much.
Mr. Murphy was so overwrought as he spoke to the Water Board that he was nearly in tears: “I’m extremely upset that a federal agency could come up here and make direct accusations about growers and the consequences of irrigation. And then clam up claiming it’s under investigation. That’s wrong! That’s not right! These are rumors. We need to know more.”
Murphy and his political gofers, Shoemaker and McCowen, are basically saying that the government shouldn’t accuse the wine industry of anything unless they have a smoking gun. But, of course, there’ll never be a smoking gun because the guns are ungaged, if you'll excuse the failed metaphor. There's no way to measure water extractions or identify the extractors.
The Mendocino County Grand Jury has strongly recommended gages in the Ukiah Valley, but the Supervisors, also captives of the wine industry, refuse to even introduce a gaging ordinance.
Gages, if you still don't get it, would tell us who’s pumping how much and when, and we need gages on the County's major waterways because vineyards continue to be planted literally everywhere and there's simply not enough water to supply all of them without regulatory apportionment.
The hysterical opposition to even the idea of monitoring was effectively captured at the Board of Supervisors meeting a couple of weeks ago when Coastal Supervisor candidate (and B&B proprietor) Wendy Roberts told the board that “the idea of wine industry regulation scares me to death!”
No one had proposed wine industry regulation, just the “consderation” of it.
But leave it to McGourty, Mendo’s own Pillsbury Doughboy, to make the single most ridiculous statement at the hearing.
“Regulations never work. Look at marijuana. It’s illegal as heck and yet we have marijuana all over northern California and our county in particular. So people don’t necessarily go along with regulation.”
The difference between the two industries, Glen, is considerable. The wine industry is legal, ultra-legal you might say, extra-legal perhaps, complete with its own elected representatives all the way up to Congressman Thompson. It also has fixed addresses and the names of its owners are public record. The dope industry is not legal. It can't be regulated until it is legal. Both the wine industry and the pot biz steal a lot of God's water and, of course, both industries exist to get God's children loaded, closer to God its partisans might argue. But according to McGourty, the tax-paid ag advisor, neither need regulation. And neither would abide by it even if there was any.