Is Lack Of Frost Protection Water For Grapes An Emergency?

by Mark Scaramella, May 22, 2014

To grape growers it certainly is. To the local politicians dependent on grape dollars and grape votes, it certainly is. But to everyone else, it’s either ho hum or outright concern that grape growers will get the last drop and the fish will be over.

Mendocino has now officially entered The Grape Era. Before that it was The Timber Era. The transition is almost total. In the last half of the 20th Century, timber dominated Mendo’s economy and politics. When the dominant timber companies finished their cut-and-run of the most marketable of Mendo’s second growth trees in the 1990s, they sold most of their overlogged properties to a wealthy San Francisco family, the Fishers of The Gap fame, who could afford to sit on the land for many years as the trees grew back. Several other large tracts were sold to non-profits or put into conservation easements. And logging, once fraught with bitter contention, dropped off Mendo’s radar screen.

Over the succeeding years, grapes have steadily replaced logging as the dominant political and economic force in Mendocino County. But the contentiousness has declined because Grape People with their nice cars, leisure attitude, and their “we’re just farmers” pose are more palatable to Mendo’s remaining “activist” elements. Wine People are nicer than “rednecks.” In fact, they’re just like us “activists.” The rednecks don’t even drink wine! And they’re meanie faces. In other words, it’s a class issue, really.

It has become increasingly clear that no one in local authority is going to raise questions about bad grape growing practices, much less do anything about them. Mendo’s capitulation to Big Grape is even more obvious when compared to our neighboring grape-dominated counties like Lake,  Napa and Sonoma all of which have at least a few grape regulations in place. Mendo has none, zero, nada. Not one even mild grape regulation. No wonder Michelle Salgues, former boss at French-owned Roederer, once told us, “Why are we here? Because we can do things here that we can’t do in France!”

Marijuana certainly qualifies as a dominant economic force in Mendocino County, but pot remains outside the mainstream, politically.

You need examples of Big Wine’s dominance?

Grading ordinance? Off the table. Water use regulation? Paperwork only. Pesticide regulation? Minimal, reporting only. Labor practices? Off the table. Pond construction permits? They’re all exempt. Noise nuisance reduction? Not a peep out of Official Mendo, including 5th District Supervisor Dan Hamburg whose district is directly affected. Better management of the Russian River’s remaining water? The Grape People sued and stopped it. Minor Use Permits for tasting rooms? “You’ll ruin the economy!” bellowed the Grape People, followed by the Planning Director claiming, “We lost your paperwork.”

Grape People dominate all the local water agencies, they have their own Supervisor in the person of Potter Valley Farm Bureau rep turned Supervisor Carre Brown — and the other four Supervisors dare not utter a word of criticism or complaint about the Wine Industry for fear that they will lose lots of votes or jeopardize the County’s wine-dependent revenues.

Recent case in point: An April decision by the National Marine Fisheries Service that lack of frost protection water for grapes is not an emergency.

Mendo’s Grape People were horrified. How dare an obscure federal bureaucracy get in their way?! Of course, it’s an emergency! It’s bad for us!

For some perspective, imagine that you’re a local grower of tomatoes or apples. The frost hits. You lose part of your crop. You prune, some of it grows back, you do what you can with the damaged fruit, you file for crop insurance if you have it, you accept that it’s part of farming, you move on — perhaps with lower revenues, but you move on to the next crop, the next year.

But grapes? Oh no! Possible frost damage? EMERGENCY! MY GRAPES ARE FREEZING! CALL 911! BRING IN THE SPRAYERS! OH NO! NO SPRAY WATER? BRING IN THE HIGH-DECIBEL FANS! WE CAN’T LOSE A SINGLE GRAPE!

Ok, it wasn’t put quite like that. It was phrased more calmly — the Grape People are usually pretty nice. (Like my father once said about a rich man he once worked for: “He was the nicest guy you’d ever want to meet — as long as you weren’t talking about HIS money.”

But the fans disturbed some 2,000 Boonville people for 12 mornings, and exactly one grower — Bill Charles — apologized. People who admire farmers with old time regard for their neighbors are encouraged to buy Charles’ Foursight pinot. Very good stuff.)

The Board discussed the feds’ no-emergency decision at their May 6th meeting, specifically a letter drafted by Supervisor Brown complaining that NMFS was way, wayyyyyyyyyy outtaline.

(The AVA is split on this one: The Editor agrees with Brown, at least in that the water should have been released to build up Lake Mendo with a view to supplying the everyday people of Redwood Valley. Me? No. Not in this context anyway.)

“Part of the diverted water [from the Eel River through Potter Valley and into Lake Mendocino] is used by the agricultural community of Potter Valley,” said Ms. Brown’s letter, carefully avoiding the word “grapes.”

“The rest is then stored in Lake Mendocino. Water stored in Lake Mendocino is used by Redwood Valley and the cities of Calpella, Ukiah, Hopland, Cloverdale, Geyserville and Healdsburg. [And some is sold by Sonoma County to Marin County at a large markup.] The water released from Lake Mendocino also supports a thriving agricultural economy along the Russian River corridor,” continued Ms. Brown, again carefully avoiding the word “grapes” which they know might not resonate too much with Mendo’s large non-grape-connected populace.

“The request by the Redwood Valley County Water District for water under the E5 emergency provision of the Potter Valley Project license was for 800 acre feet of water,” continued Ms. Brown’s draft. “That amount of water would have been diverted and stored in Lake Mendocino for use by Redwood Valley. At a diversion rate of 250 cubic feet per second, which is the maximum capacity of PG&E’s diversion tunnel, it would have taken approximately 38 hours to fulfill the request from the Redwood Valley County Water District (RVCWD). At the time the water transfer request would have been granted all of the required minimum flows, under the NMFS [rules] for the Eel River would have been exceeded by many hundreds of cubic feet per second.

“During two conference calls early in April (4/8/14 and 4/9/14), initiated by RVCWD and facilitated by PG&E, many of the stakeholders that had intervened in the proceedings for the Potter Valley Project license over the past 25 years agreed on one thing. That one thing was that it was in concept allowable for PG&E to divert 800 acre-feet of water for Redwood Valley’s agricultural community. These stakeholders included California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Friends of the Eel River, NMFS (NOAA), Potter Valley Irrigation District and others. PG&E contacted FERC regarding the proposal and FERC requested that the interveners acknowledge in writing that they supported the proposal.”

These are very interesting technical details, details that could only come from the grape-dominated water agencies along the Russian River corridor with whom Ms. Brown is closely associated.

Notice also that Ms. Brown carefully inserted the words “in concept” to her portrayal of the positions of the other “stakeholders.” We agree “in concept” too. Of course water should be reasonably managed, especially when there’s a drought. But that’s not what was proposed for Redwood Valley. They made a much more specific request.

“Written agreements were subsequently received from Friends of the Eel River, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, CalTrout and the Potter Valley Irrigation District. The Round Valley Tribes did not protest the proposal. On April 14, 2014 Mr. Dick Butler from the Santa Rosa, California, office of NOAA [the agency under which NMFS operates] emailed a statement to PG&E, and to all of the participants in the earlier conference calls, denying the requested proposal due to the fact that he believed ‘the current situation does not qualify as an emergency.’ He went on to describe the definition of ‘emergency’ as including ‘fire, flood, earthquake…as well as…riot, accident or sabotage.’ He continued saying that the emergency would have to cause ‘damage to, life, health, property or essential public services.’ Mr. Butler went on to describe the current drought emergency situation as a ‘predictable local event…’

“We are very concerned that a Federal employee could make a determination that, first, drought is a ‘predictable local event’ and, second, that the loss of a farmer’s crop is not considered to be ‘damage to property’.”

But drought is indeed a “predictable local event.” We’ve seen it coming for months. And again, Ms. Brown guiltily avoids the word “grapes,” preferring to call it “a farmer’s crop.”

“This year, facing the worst drought since records have been kept, the impact of the flawed [rules] for the Potter Valley project is greatly amplified. Beside the fact that the [rules are] flawed, we are at a loss to understand how in one breath a NMFS official could agree to a minor diversion of water for a community facing severe economic losses and then turn around and deny that relief because he doesn’t believe the loss of a farmer’s crop constitutes an emergency.

“We would like you to review the circumstances surrounding the proposed minor water diversion from the Potter Valley Project and provide us with an explanation of how the final decision to deny water to Redwood Valley was made.”

* * *

David Keller with Friends of the Eel River was the first to comment on May 6: “Thank you for having this meeting this morning to discuss this letter. I was a participant in both phone calls with both PG&E and other stakeholders including Redwood Valley. There are several aspects of this decision that I hope that you could be clear about. First of all, PG&E made it very clear, and this refers to the second paragraph on page 2 about the diversion rate of 250 cubic feet per second, and how quickly the request could have been fulfilled. PG&E project management made it very clear that there was a declining hydrograph, there was a rapid reduction of flows occurring during this period — the first and second week of April. Given their desire to top off Lake Pillsbury as quickly as possible so that the availability of 250 cubic feet per second was not in fact accurate. It was declining rapidly on the 8th. It could have been 250 cubic feet per second, but it was declining at 40 cubic feet per second per day at that point and this is the PG&E project manager. So in reality it could not have been filled in 30-some-odd hours. There was also a question discussed during the call about ramping rates for the flows below Cape Horn so as not to strand chinook salmon in the main channel which is where they are spawning and rearing this year given the low flows; they are not using the tributaries very much. The concern of the resource agencies was that the ramp down was going to be at a maximum of 40 cubic feet per second per day below Cape Horn. So again it could not occur, this transfer could not occur as rapidly as is stated in his letter. We support the decision of the National Marine Fisheries Service on the discussion about the emergency. That was a question raised in the phone call. Mr. Butler made it very clear he was going to consult with senior staff and with their attorneys and this is apparently the result. So conceptually we agree that under the circumstances we could work with the transfer. We would have preferred that it would have been happening after April 15 with warm water flows which would have been a higher release which is happening right now. But that was not the option that was presented by Redwood Valley. The storage was indicated not to be for frost reasons. That would have been filled during the winter season. And finally, according to the email that you have, there is another unanswered question that was raised during the phone call and confirmed by the State Water Board which is that there is no legal path established by Redwood Valley to have the water transferred by PG&E to its own intakes. None of those questions that were raised by the State Board about how the legal process would happen to bypass upstream water users, water rights holders, would would occur to be able to satisfy a withdrawal for Redwood Valley. Those questions were posed by PG&E by the State Board and they have not been answered and as you can see by the email they are fairly substantial questions and I think certainly stakeholders in Potter Valley and in the Russian River Flood Control District, Sonoma County Water Agency — all of whom have senior water rights, as well as any riparian rights holders would have to be addressed before this water could bypass their ability to take water. And again those questions need to be answered. I think the letter here is a little bit over the top in terms of blaming Mr. Butler. He was very clear in the phone call that he needed to consult with counsel and with senior staff. So during the phone call. The concepts were there, the execution needs to be worked out.”

Does that sound like an unreasonable grape hater to you? It certainly did to Ms. Brown who curtly asked, “I’m sorry, I missed your introduction. Do you want to restate your name, who you are representing and what is your place of residence, please.”

“Sure. David Keller, Friends of the Eel River. I’m the Bay Area Director. I reside in Petaluma.”

Ms. Brown’s little trap was now set.

Guinness McFadden, Potter Valley grape grower, Potter Valley Irrigation District Board member, couldn’t let Keller’s remarks go unquestioned: “As usual Friends of the Eel River are a little bit loose on truth and facts. In fact, from 31 March to 9 April, the period we’re talking about the possible diversion of water into Redwood Valley, the dam gates were open. Mr. Keller implied that PG&E wasn’t sure that they would be able to divert the 250 feet per cubic second because they wanted to fill Lake Pillsbury. They had to open the dam gates after having closed them because of the late storms. So that means that on 1 April there were 1551 cubic feet per second down from Cape Horn Dam. There were 1922 on the second and 1620 cubic feet per second on the third, and it goes on until there were 431 cubic feet per second on the ninth. During that time the flow through the Potter Valley powerhouse was 13 cfs, 32 cfs, 45cfs. So it would have been eminently possible to divert the 250 and still have plenty of water for downstream use by fish. This is not an issue where lawyers should really get involved so much as it’s neighbors trying to help neighbors. Lawyering up and talking about water rights and that sort of thing is fine under normal circumstances but this was an emergency. I think the people in Redwood Valley, not only the agricultural community, but there are 5,000 people there whose lives will be miserable this summer because they don’t have this water. It could have been easily sent to them without harming any of the fish or any of the other water users. This is an example for long-term consideration. Those two like to be operated as one. The way it is now with the Corps of Engineers mandate for flood control and not much attention paid to water storage and on the other hand Lake Pillsbury being operated for hydroelectric and irrigation with oversight on the fish in the Eel River — they are at different purposes and they often act harmfully to one another. I think that’s an issue that should be addressed as we go along with this.”

Supervisor McCowen: “I was initially encouraged when I heard that Friends of the Eel River and the Round Valley tribes were not objecting to the proposed emergency diversion. Unfortunately, certainly for Friends of the Eel River, that didn’t hold true. I agree with the public comments to the effect that the diversion could have easily been accomplished without any harm to fisheries interests or other interests in the Eel River drainage and I won’t belabor the problems with the target storage curve which any reasonable person recognizes is a faulty regulatory mechanism. Again, there was some slight hope that this might be an opening to have people start to come together to agree on what is a reasonable way to manage this valuable resource for the benefit of all. That said, Mr. Chair, I move approval of the recommended action, part one which is to direct staff to transmit a letter to a NOAA fisheries regarding its denial of a request to transfer emergency water and sale to Redwood Valley County Water District through the Potter Valley Project and authorize the Supervisor Brown to revise the letter in light of public comment today for the signature of the chair.”

McCowen’s certainly right about the “faulty regulatory mechanism” governing Lake Mendocino water releases. But the invocation of “togetherness” is along the lines of that old Sam Goldwyn remark: “Consensus is when everyone agrees with me.”

Supervisor Dan Gjerde: “Do you want to keep the phrase where it says it could have been filled in 38 hours or do you want to extend that time period? I’m not sure if that’s still the thought.”

McCowen: “The intent of the motion is for Supervisor Brown to consider all the public comment and revise the letter as she feels appropriate for the approval of the chair.”

Gjerde: “It sounds like the comments we heard from the public was that it would have been filled within 38 hours, but Friends of the Eel River said it would have been filled — they just didn’t say it could be filled in 38 hours. So…”

Pinches: “In the summary sheet that’s sort of the direction to include that. Or do you want to take this issue up?”

McCowen: “Supervisor Brown do you want to move forward on both actions?”

Brown: “Yes, and may I have the explanation to number two. May I add one?”

Pinches: “He [McCowen] needs to make that part of his motion.”

McCowen: “I’m willing to make it part of the motion if you approve.”

Brown: “I do.”

Pinches: “In other words we are approving the total recommended action?”

Brown: “Yes.”

Pinches: “That’s what Supervisor McCowen…”

Supervisor Dan Hamburg: “My comments or questions are basically along the lines that Supervisor Gjerde just brought up. I think there is some difference in emphasis, some different ways to state it. If it had been written with collaboration of Friends of the Eel — but I don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater here. I think there was some accommodation between the two groups. Not only two groups but five or six groups that were involved in these conference calls. I hope that Janet [Pauli, Potter Valley Grape Grower, Farm Bureau ally of Supervisor Brown] and Supervisor Brown can really make this letter as cooperative as possible because we’re kind of in this together. I don’t think Friends of the Eel is going away. I don’t think the needs of our water purveyors and our water users are going away. So we need to figure out how to march together whenever that’s possible. And I know it’s not always possible. But we have seen that with this Eel River Recovery project. We have seen more cooperation than I think people used to think was possible between groups that really do have some disparate interests. So let’s not try to pick fights over things that we can agree on. I hope the final letter that Supervisor Brown approves will, and I’m confident that it will, take into account as much of the common interests of these groups as possible. I did find Mr. Keller’s comments to be interesting and I think there should be some recognition of those comments even though I agree with the basic thrust of the letter and worked with Supervisor Brown and Janet on preparing the letter. Or at least editing the letter and approving the letter. I want to see this go forward but I want to see a little acrimony as possible.”

What “acrimony” is Hamburg talking about? Certainly, Mr. Keller’s remarks were far from acrimonious.

Supervisor Brown then sprung her not-so-clever, not to say acrimonious, home-town trap.

Brown: “I think Mr. Keller’s a bit of a Lone Ranger here today. And the reason I wanted to cite his residence as being in the County of Sonoma, I think some of his remarks are more personal and a personal position rather than that of Friends of the Eel River. But certainly we will take his comments into consideration as you have requested.”

Hamburg, doing his best to avoid any hint of “acrimony” replied, “That could well be true.”

Board Chair John Pinches broadened the discussion well outside the scope of Ms. Brown’s acrimony, er, letter: “Whenever you talk about the Eel River now — a lot of people think that flows going through the tunnel hurts the Eel River — what really is hurting the Eel River now is because the Eel River is nothing more than a partnership with all the tributaries all the way from Scott Dam clear to the ocean. What’s happening in the Eel River now is, if these entities are so worried about keeping the flows for fisheries in the Eel then how are they so disinterested in all the diversions of our major tributaries that make up the Eel River. All the way down. The tributaries in my district and as far into the county and on even into the section in Trinity County and then on into Humboldt County. In the middle of the summer these tributaries that contribute to the makeup of the Eel River are dry. They are not slowed up — they are dry! It’s all diverted. They can’t divert more because they are diverting it all! The Eel River is still running a little bit in places in the late fall. But the tributaries, I’m talking about major tributaries that when I was a kid were fish streams. They had trout in them. You could go trout fishing in any of them. They are dry! We hear a lot of talk about the illegal diversions. We are doing this, we’re doing that. In my experience and what I’ve seen, there hasn’t been anything done. And why that isn’t the focus at least in part of this discussion — we talk about an Eel River Recovery project? The way it’s going there ain’t gonna be no water in the Eel River. Might as well talk about Sand Protection or something. Because there’s no more water left. The tributaries of the Eel are down to nothing, and I mean nothing. And if you don’t believe me come with me for a day and I will show you.”

Brown: “And there’s no snow pack.”

Pinches: “And that’s the reality. But until somebody gets on the ball and does something, and everybody knows this is basically because of the marijuana industry and things are booming out there and you can see the water tanks going by the truckloads north and it all takes that tributary water to fill up the water tanks and the building of dams and reservoirs in these hills is just amazing how much is going on and that all takes water from the tributaries that feed the Eel River. But there is no emphasis — it’s kind of like, yeah, let’s fight over the water that’s going through the tunnel and let’s not worry about what’s happening in 90% of the rest of the Eel River watershed. It’s crazy to me! I don’t understand it. And that’s all I’m going to say on that. For now. It’s a real tragedy that is happening. People better get on the ball about what’s going on.”

Brown: “The real issue here is that NOAA made a determination that there was not an emergency in Redwood Valley. And following up the information with these recommendations I basically put an action plan which should include potential regulatory agency involvement and lay out a plan for the future that each agency would pre-approve to take advantage of excess water when possible from one reservoir to the other during an emergency as we face today. These are the things. They determined it was not an emergency for Redwood Valley which is very wrong.”

Sounds ok on its face — except for the phrase “excess water.” Guess who gets to determine what is “excess”?

That’s right: The Grape People who run the inland water districts. Certainly not some Lone-Ranger Petaluma-based water pest who cares more about fish than grapes.

Supervisor Brown’s letter was approved unanimously.

One Response to Is Lack Of Frost Protection Water For Grapes An Emergency?

  1. John Sakowicz Reply

    May 23, 2014 at 6:37 pm

    This article,”Is Lack Of Frost Protection Water For Grapes An Emergency?”, is really first-class reporting on water and wine politics in the 1st District — thank you.

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