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Wine Industry Water Grab?

California's slow-mo adoption of groundwater regulations is prompting all sorts of legal maneuvers by the state's irrigation elite, who are striving for the fewest restrictions on their pumps possible. In the Russian River watershed, from where I write this dispatch, arguably the irrigation elite's elitist elites are the grape growers of northern Sonoma County.

Their lawyers are not resting.

State Sen. Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg) is quietly sponsoring legislation to create a new independent special district called the Russian River Irrigation District, which would be operated of, by, and for the growers and their affiliated wineries, tasting rooms, and event centers.

The district would encompass much of the Russian River watershed in northern Sonoma County, and possibly a small portion of southern Mendocino County. The legislation specifically names its purview as being the Alexander Valley, Knights Valley, Dry Creek Valley, and “the territory within the portion of the Russian River Valley American Viticultural Area” and “the portion of the Russian River Valley American Viticultural Area south of River Road and Mark West Creek Road.”

Senator McGuire (of “Marijauna Watershed Protection Act” fame) has yet to introduce the legislation in bill form. Rather, his staff has circulated a “discussion draft” of the proposed legislation to — and I'm intentionally using the in-fashion political jargon here — “interested parties.”

Reportedly, grape growers met on July 27th to discuss the bill and they are not unanimously in favor of it. They still need to iron out a lot of kinks. For that reason, McGuire (who is from Healdsburg, and thus to no small degree a political creature of the wine industry) has yet to bring the bill before the State Legislature.

The main function of irrigation districts generally is to allow agricultural water users the option of controlling their own water rights, rather than be subject to state administrative control or popular eleciton. They have the power to tax all the property in a designated area for the construction and maintenance of dams and canals. Water rights belong to the water district rather than to individual water users.

The 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act requires all groundwater basins that the California Department of Water Resources deems “high- or medium-priority basins” — those that are being rapidly overdrafted — to be managed under a “groundwater sustainability plan” or “coordinated groundwater sustainability plans” by January 31, 2020. It requires all “high- or medium-priority basins” not subject to colossal overdraft to be managed under said plans by January 31, 2022. (That’s not a typo: the end of 2022.)

California's agriculture lobby has fended off groundwater regulation for decades. The Golden State is the last in the country to pass a groundwater regulation bill.

The “discussion draft” of the Russian River Irrigation bill has not been released publicly. So, as a public service, the AVA will offer a copy of the bill on its website. Here is an excerpt:

“The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act authorizes a local agency or combination of local agencies overlying a groundwater basin to elect to be a groundwater sustainability agency for a basin. If this bill is enacted and the district is created, the district would be a local agency for purposes of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and the district may exercise authorities granted to local agencies in accordance with the provisions of the Act.

“This bill would authorize the district to cooperate with the County of Sonoma County, Sonoma County Water Agency, and other agencies on water and natural resource management issues. This bill would provide that the creation of the district would not modify any powers of Sonoma County, the Sonoma County Water Agency, and other agencies.

“The bill would authorize the district to provide assistance to water users and water right holders within the district.

“This bill would authorize the district to assist landowners and water right holders within the district to manage the diversion and use of water for vineyard and orchard frost protection.”

Among the growers whose water would be administered by the irrigation district are the Gallo family, who pump far more money into state and federal political coffers than any other grape-growing entity, even including the California Association of Winegrape Growers and the San Francisco-based Wine Institute. “Self-regulation” of water use is the industry's long-standing modus operandi. Residential landowners are utterly ignored in the bill.

Meanwhile, opposition to the wine industry's unmitigated water use has reached fever pitch in many parts of Sonoma County. The State Water Board has ordered residential water users to cut back by 25% in four major Russian River tributary watersheds: Mark West Creek, Green Valley Creek, ostensibly to protect endangered coho salmon (which are certainly suffering mightily at present). The wine industry, which is the biggest contemporary cause of the decline of these creeks, does not have to cut back on its water use whatsoever.

The inherent unfairness of this order prompted roughly 1,000 outraged Sonomans to fill the hall at four Water Board meetings earlier this month in Sonoma County. You wouldn't know much about it if you merely relied on the corporate press. The Santa Rosa Press Democrat published a pretty reasonable piece about the first of these meetings on July 6 in Occidental (“Rural residents decry water restrictions at Occidental meeting”), then failed to mention the next three in any of its reporting.

The situation is exemplified by the following: Sonoma County — the lead agency on land use decisions — continues to grant ministerial permits (that is, permits not subject to regulatory review) for wells and vineyard expansions in these watersheds while at the same time telling current users that there is not enough water for them to continue to water their vegetable gardens.

As one Mark West Creek landowner told me, “the water continues to drop in the creek, more and more people are trucking water, everyone is asked to conserve and the county issues permits to take more. If it weren't so tragic it would seem like a joke.”

People are seriously worked up this time around. Even if the Godzilla El Nino the prognosticators are talking about materializes, the issue is not going away. (We'll have more details in an upcoming edition.)

Meanwhile, that bastion of progressive water policy known as the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has enacted a temporary ban on new vineyards in the north Santa Monica Mountains near Malibu due to concerns about groundwater decline. It's the latest coastal region the grape industry has targeted. Fifty-one applications were made for new vineyards there in a ten-month period, the LA Times reports, whereas the previous year generated only three.

Unlike in Sonoma and Mendo, where the wine industry has a political stranglehold, Los Angeles politicians apparently have leeway to exercise some degree of sanity.


  1. Jim Updegraff August 1, 2015

    If the drought continues as it probably will with occasional rain years ultimately the water grab will fail. Just punishment for grabbing water to feed an intoxicant.

  2. Marcy August 10, 2015

    We have had to drill a new well ! Stop this unregulated water grab by big business/wineries! Why has Sonoma Co. Taken so long to regulate it’s water? What is the water plan for for sustainability?

  3. Will Parrish August 10, 2015

    One correction: The Water Board’s emergency regulation in the four Russian River tributaries do not require a 25 percent cut-back. Rather, it bans watering of lawns and water use for decorative fixtures. It limits watering for other landscaping to two days a week between the hours of 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. It mandates that all car washing take place with recycled water only. And a few other odds and ends.

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