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Grape Growers Congratulate Each Other

Back in 2009 the Grape People realized they needed to do something to counter the relatively small amount of negative publicity they were getting, particularly around water use and fish strandings caused by overpumping during cold weather. Local writer Thom Elkjer put it this way: “Winegrowers have taken plenty of grief around here for planting vineyards where there used to be sheep and orchards, even though the best of them patiently explain to anyone who will listen that they are good stewards of the watershed.”

“Plenty of grief” is Mr. Elkjer’s description of the occasional critical article in the AVA. No other news outlets or government agencies have mentioned the wine industry in anything but the most glowing terms.Elkjer continued, “They use drip irrigation. They don’t take water directly from the creeks or the river, even though they own the rights.”

Of course they take water directly from local streams. We have pictures of some of them doing it.“They use water for frost protection only as a last resort, and many of the new vineyards are planted at altitudes that go decades between hard frosts anyway.”

Actually, according to the wine people last spring, they use wind machines as a last resort because their first resort, water, was in short supply.

“Yet the perception persists that with thousands of acres of vineyards, local growers must be sucking up a lot of water.”

In other words, don’t believe your lyin’ eyes.UC Ag Extension Grape Advisor and inland County grape grower Glenn McGourty, “combined information drawn from a survey of grape growers with water usage data volunteered by vineyard owners representing about 40% of the 3111 acres under vine in the Navarro watershed.”

In other words, the self-interested interviewed the self-interested and called it a study.“It was a voluntary survey,” Elkjer dutifully reported, “so it could represent the 40% of good guys who are careful with their water and exclude the 60% who are real water wasters. To balance for that, McGourty and his colleagues kept their assumptions and other variables conservative and were subjecting their calculations to rigorous scientific evaluation by other researchers.”Elkjer never named those “other researchers,” and as you’ll see below, the calculations fall a little short of “rigorous scientific.” “[McGourty’s] punchline, however,” Elkjer concluded, “was unmistakable: ‘When we analyze the data we can gather to a fairly high level of confidence, the result is clear. The vineyards are not guzzling water here. They’re sipping’.”

That was four years before McGourty’s report for The Nature Conservancy was finally issued in 2013. We only recently realized it was out since it was released without fanfare. It was called “Meeting Agricultural Water Needs In The Navarro River Watershed, Mendocino County, California.”

Local grape growers weren't about to pay for their own self-promotion, they got the Nature Conservancy to fund the 2009 “study” — headed up by a taxpayer funded friend of the wine industry, McGourty. He organized volunteers from the UC Davis wine program to do the alleged research which ended up costing more than the value of the Nature Conservancy grant, so the actual report wasn’t released until 2013 — four years after the initial hype.

McGourty’s “they’re sippping” conclusion, however, looks more like ordinary wine industry propaganda if one reads his belated report and analyzes his “rigorous scientific” method instead of listening to wine-lover summaries of it.

We doubt that many non-wine industry people have read the thing, although a few may have glanced at McGourty’s “executive summary,” which concluded that in the opinion of the local wine industry the wine industry is doing a great job conserving the acres of water they help themselves to from Mendocino County's public streams.

Based on a survey of themselves, the grape growers are using water sparingly. All they need to do is make sure there are no leaks. We'd like to think that the 14 growers who chose to report, reported honestly, although there was no attempt to verify anything they claimed. But self-reported claims of water use are inherently suspicious because very few growers have flow or usage gauges; in fact the words “gage” or “gauge” do not appear in the report except for passing mention of the government-run one near the mouth of the Navarro. But according to McGourty & Co., grapes are now growing on a whopping 2800 acres of Anderson Valley’s prime ag land, and they all need water for irrigation and frost protection — not to mention the huge amounts of water used to convert grapes to wine.

From the opening acknowledgements: “We want to thank the cooperating growers who participated in focus groups and surveys, as well as granted farm access to make field evaluations of irrigation systems.”And later, “Based on grower surveys in 2009, we estimated that 1,825 acre-feet (af) were used, including approximately 678 af for frost protection. A total of 558 af were used for grapevine irrigation (consumptive use), 457 af for orchards, and 132 af for irrigated pasture. These results suggest growers are using effective water conservation techniques.”

There’s McGourty’s “scientific” method in action again: “estimated … approximately … suggest … effective…”

Actually, the results suggest that the growers SAY they are using effective water conservation techniques.

“Of the 1,339 acres assessed in our survey of 14 growers, 44 acres (3%) were irrigated from wells (ground water); 202 acres (13%) were irrigated from direct diversion of surface water; and the remaining 1093 acres (84%) were irrigated from off stream ponds.”

First, this contradicts MR. Elkjer's claim that “they don’t take water directly from the creeks or the river, even though they own the rights.”

They “surveyed” only the 14 growers who chose to participate, making it less like a survey and more like a wine tasting event with everybody clapping each other on their backs and toasting each other. We know there are at least 90 vineyards in the Valley. At no point does McGourty say how many surveys he actually mailed out. But that doesn't stop him from concluding with no basis at all, “Fourteen growers participated representing a broad range of operational size in vineyard and orchard crops.” And, “Respondents’ irrigation practices encompassed those employed by other growers within the same area, hence their input may be assumed to represent the irrigation practices in the Anderson Valley and the Navarro River Watershed, and provides for a robust sample rate.”

Is this really a useful survey?

“It is important to realize that wine grape growers differed greatly in the amount of water that they applied to their vineyards due to many factors, including variety and trellis system; soil type and depth; irrigation thresholds if they are using Regulated Deficit Irrigation (RDI), and the total amount of available soil moisture. Our grower survey results show the range of water use in vineyards in the Navarro River watershed ranged from 0 (no applied water) to 0.7 acre feet (af) during the 2009 growing season. Based on our surveys growers irrigated on average 60 hours per year, mainly between late July and October. Orchards received more water per acre due to larger canopy sizes (higher ET). We took a conservative approach in calculating total water demand by retaining the breadth of water use patterns reported in grower surveys.”

Only one season was “surveyed” for a mere 14 growers; McGourty admits that the growers “differed greatly in the amount of water that they applied to their vineyards.”

Frost protection: “It is important to note that most (81%) of the vineyards in our study had an active frost protection system in place due to the high risk of frost in the Navarro River Watershed.”

Translation: We planted our grapes in areas we knew had a high risk of frost which typically requires a lot of water over a short period. Then we tell everyone else that they have to part with their water and/or their sleep so that our grapes won't freeze in the frigid areas where we planted them.McGourty also says there are only 165 ponds in AV and that many of those 165 are not related to grapes. There goes a big chunk of credibility, right there. The last time the State Water Board notified pond owners to remind them that they should make sure their permit paperwork was in order, they sent out over 600 notices. And that was well before 2009.

The casualness with which McGourty draws unsupported conclusions like “According to our survey results, 91% of frost protected vineyard acreage is covered by water from off-stream storage. The remaining 9% of acreage is frost protected from direct diversion sources. In 2009, growers averaged about 40 hours of frost protection during 5 events which is considered somewhat average. In the past decade, there have been some years with no frost events, and in some sites in 2008, there were over 20 frost events…” borders on astonishing.

“Considered somewhat average”? “Growers have recognized the problems with direct diversions from surface waters of the Navarro watershed associated with endangered species and dewatering fish habitat. Many have developed ponds and other water storage to eliminate direct diversions. It is also noteworthy that many of the survey respondents reported employing multiple types of water capture and storage systems to meet their irrigation needs. This approach diversifies the growers’ dependence on any one particular system and suggests a willingness to try different solutions.”

“Many … many … multiple types of water capture … suggests a willingness…” These are not the words and phrases of scientific rigor.Actually, it “suggests a willingness” on the part of McGourty & Co. to believe whatever their grower chums tell them.McGourty: “

There are 264 licensed and permitted water rights in the Navarro River Watershed as of 2012 with a cumulative annual face value of 9635 acre feet (af) of water (SWRCB 2012). Face value of a water right represents the maximum possible diversion amount for a given right (SWRCB 2013). This is considerably more than is presently being used to irrigate agricultural crops. Many [sic] of these rights are probably [sic] for springs and other diversions including livestock, domestic, some industrial [sic] and public uses. In 2009 there were 88 licensed, permitted, or pending water rights for irrigation use in the Navarro River watershed. These water rights had a combined face value of 3645.6 af, with 1789 af to direct diversion mostly between March 1 and November 1 of each year and 1856.6 af going to storage ponds mostly between November 1 and June 1. It was not in the scope of this study to evaluate and categorize all of the uses, but certainly there has been a fairly large volume of water licensed and permitted by the SWRCB in the Navarro River Watershed.”

Translation: Water use is going up exponentially (or was in 2013 before the drought kicked in). And it can go further up and still be under the state water board’s “licensed and permitted” limit. And that only counts the so-called “licensed and permitted” rights, which, as we know, apply only to a fraction of the actual water users and which are not monitored or enforced.

“Close monitoring and management of water levels in the watershed, including mainstem and tributaries, is necessary to ensure optimal allocation of resources.”

Really? Then why isn't close monitoring and management recommended?“

Until recently, riparian water users did not have to report their water use. This is now changing, and self-reporting is required (SWRCB 2013). Although not in the purview of this effort, further studies are needed to assess the impact of riparian rights and water use on the Navarro River Watershed.”

“Self-reporting is required” is an oxymoron.

For $40 you can download a copy of this “study” and evaluate it for yourself and still have $40 left over for a pricy bottle of pinot.


  1. Jim Updegraff August 17, 2014

    It is all academic. Climate change will catch with the grape growers. As the increasing amount of CO2 pushes its way to 450 ppm and we continue to move to more frequent droughts the grapes vines will die from the lack of water.

    Jim Updegraff

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