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‘Don’t Know, Don’t Wanna’ Know’

Last month, the California State Water Resources Control Board enacted “emergency drought regulations” in parts of four Russian River tributaries in Sonoma County with the stated aim of protecting endangered coho salmon and threatened steelhead trout. Among other things, the 270-day regulation forbids watering of lawns by residences and businesses. It places limits on car-washing and watering of home gardens.

It does not, however, restrict water use by the wine industry, which many rural Sonoma County residents recognize as the main contemporary cause of most of these watersheds' decline.

Intake pipes directly in the Russian River near Hopland (photo taken July 15, 2015 by Ken Sund).
Intake pipes directly in the Russian River near Hopland (photo taken July 15, 2015 by Ken Sund).

In response, hundreds of Sonoma County residents flocked to several “community meetings” where the Water Board announced the terms of their regulatory order last month. Water Board representatives and fishery officials responded to the pervasive complaints by saying that their goal is to avoid cutting off water for irrigation, since it “provides an economic benefit,” and that they would only move to other water use curtailments if absolutely necessary to ensure the survival of these creeks' 2015 year-class of juvenile salmon and trout.

In the meantime, these state and federal officials hailed one aspect of the regulation as an inherently progressive feature, one they touted would apply equally to vineyards and residences: an “information order.” Under this requirement, all water users in the applicable portions of the four creeks would be required to report the amount of water they are using and the source of that water.

In an interview earlier this month for an upcoming feature in the North Bay Bohemian (which we will reprint in the AVA), I asked State Water Board member Dorene D'Adamo to elaborate on the intentions of the order. D'Adamo, who is the Water Board's point person for the Russian River regulations, is the five-member Water Board's “agriculture representative.”

“Everyone will be asked how much they're diverting and how,” said D'Adamo, who hails from Stanislaus. “That will give us the information we need to determine if we need to undertake any additional regulatory requirements. It will also provide the community at large with more accurate information as to what's going on when it comes to agricultural and residential water use.”

D'Adamo said that the Water Board's staff was in the process of working out the finer points of the order and conducting “additional outreach to the affected areas.” But now, according to Water Board staff, the information order may not be instituted after all.

“All landowners and water suppliers in the four watersheds are subject to the informational order provisions of the emergency regulation, including irrigated agriculture and wineries,” Water Board spokesman Timothy Moran told me via e-mail last week. “To date, the State Water Board has not issued an informational order under the Russian River Tributaries Emergency Regulation. If issued, individuals would be required to provide the requested information online. The informational order would request information related to water source and use.”

* * *

For years, the wine industry – as with other agribusiness – has strenuously opposed any proposal for state and federal agencies to measure their water use. According to critics of their undue influence on California water policies, this stance has resulted in a widespread willful ignorance. Laura Waldbaum, who lives along upper Mark West Creek and has worked for more than a decade to protect the watershed from vineyard development, characterized this regulatory stance as a case of “don't know, don't wanna' know.”

For example, the Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA), which manages the releases of water into the river from the Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma reservoirs, does not track who uses it or for what purpose. “We don't have a countywide breakdown of water use for residences and agriculture,” Water Agency spokeswoman Ann Dubay told me earlier this year.

The political dynamics involved in the failure to collect water use information have become readily obvious in the drought, many observers note. Earlier this year, State Senator Fran Pavley (D-Calabasas) introduced a bill to make well completion reports available to the public, allowing residents to know the size of neighboring wells.

Advocates say the bill would be a meaningful departure from California's long-standing system of “pump as you may” whereby those with the most capital drill the deepest and out-pump the little guy whose wells go dry. In all other western states, such reports are public and often searchable online.

The California Association of Winegrape Growers joined other agribusiness entities in lobbying against the bill on the grounds that it would empower “those trolling for lawsuits,” according to an official statement. The CAWG and the Wine Institute, another industry trade association, are consistently two of California's top five agribusiness spenders on lobbying. For a detailed breakdown from the 2007-2011 period, see the 2011 piece I co-authored with Darwin Bond-Graham called “How Wine Rules” at

The Water Board has announced its intention to monitor water use more closely before, only to back away. Take the Salinas River, the largest drainage in California's Central Coast. Promoters call it "the Salad Bowl of the World" for the production of lettuce, broccoli, peppers and numerous other crops. The watershed is also home to tens of thousands of acres of vineyards. Agricultural run-off has badly degraded the river's water quality. Remarkably, though, a handful of its tributaries still sustain small populations of steelhead trout.

About 15 years ago, the Water Board initiated a regulatory program to install stream gauges and to monitor well water use by specific farms. They quickly retreated from the effort after receiving backlash from farmers.

I asked environmental advocate Alan Levine of Coast Action Group, who has been involved in efforts to shape regional environmental regulations for decades, for his take on the Water Board's apparent wavering with regard to the “information order” requirement in the Russian River. His response was straightforward: “The Farm Bureau.”

Tito Sasaki, chairman of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s Water Committee, did not respond to a request for comment before press time. In a letter to the State Water Resources Control Board last month concerning the “information order” part of the Russian River drought regulations, Sasaki complained about the idea that property owners should have to details of their use of stream and well water, which he characterized as a breech of property rights that also would “not save any fish this summer.”

[Update 8/19/15, 6:06 p.m.:

In spite the Water Board's previous mixed signals, it appears the "information order" described in this article is imminent. A well-placed source says the Water Board is preparing to mail Dutch Bill Creek residents a formal notice concerning their implementation of the "information order" next week.

Tito Sasaki of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau responded to my request for comment late this afternoon and related the following: "Despite [the Farm Bureau's] repeated objection, [Water Board staff] said they would issue an Informational Order... As late as last Wednesday, their staff maintained that the Order would be issued this week. But so far, I haven't heard that it has been issued."

Sasaki added: "To answer your question, we are not too concerned about the state measuring our water use... We are actually proud of the figures that show how much irrigation water we have been saving over the past decades. We are, however, against meaningless regulations imposed upon us."]

* * *

Few California waterways are historically as important to coho and steelhead as Mark West Creek, which spills down into the Russian River just prior to the once-proud river's dramatic turn toward the ocean near Windsor. Long-time fisheries ecologist Stacey Li, formerly with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), said in a 2011 interview with me that he has “never seen abundances of steelhead that high anywhere else in California.” The Brown administration's California Water Action Plan acknowledges the creek's historical role, naming it one of California's five highest priority waterways for restoration funding.

In several past articles, I've detailed the devastating impacts of vineyard and winery development on Mark West Creek. For years, Waldbaum and other residents tried in vain to compel fisheries agencies to intervene on the creek's behalf. They got, as Waldbaum describes it, the “same cut-and-paste answer every time”: the county, not the state, is the “lead agency” on land use decisions. Therefore, according to state officials, they were unable to intervene.

Ultimately, Mark West Creek residents succeeded in convincing an agency to do only one thing: install several flow meters on the creek to help quantify impacts from various water uses. Written correspondence between NMFS officials and Waldbaum, which I've reviewed for this article, makes clear that the fisheries agency was extremely reluctant to install the gauges and may not have done so absent persistent pressure from local residents who were outraged about the damage the wine industry had wrought on their watershed.

NMFS ultimately installed five gauges, which provided data for a study the Oakland-based environmental consulting company Center for Ecosystem Management and Restoration (CEMAR) published in November 2014. It is one of two official studies on water use in the creeks subject to the Water Board regulation (the other is in Green Valley Creek). It notes that only one in five Mark West Creek residences “have a lawn, visible garden, or other irrigated landscaping.” Although the area CEMAR's biologists selected for study only contains three vineyards, these three properties' annual water demand for irrigation alone is not much less than the area's 222 residences — including those that have landscaping.

And that's assuming CEMAR's water use estimates are accurate.  None of the researchers had direct access to information about any of the vineyards' water use, so they had to rely on generalizations and informed speculation.

* * *

Other examples of the wine industry's efforts to safeguard information about their water use abound. In spring, grapevines emerge from their winter dormancy with new vegetative growth that sprouts from buds established in the previous growing season. Frost can damage this new tissue and significantly affect the subsequent yield of grapes. Growers have increasingly sprayed water, via overhead sprinklers, on the vines to form a protective layer of ice over the new growth.

The amount of water that this practice requires, as longtime Russian River grape-grower Rodney Strong noted in a 1993 interview with UC Oral History, is "horrendous" — typically, 50 to 55 gallons per minute per acre. In 2005, University of California biologists documented up to 97 percent stream flow reductions overnight due to frost protection activities in Maacama Creek, one of the Russian River's five largest tributaries. In 2009, the State Water Board and NMFS finally made a move -- long-overdue, in the eyes of many critics -- to regulate the wine industry's reliance on instream pumping for frost protection.

Russian River pumps (photo by Ken Sund)
Russian River water pumps (photo by Ken Sund)

As records from NMFS show, the regulatory agencies only sought to determine the impacts of frost protection on fisheries starting in 2008, and then only after dozens of salmon and trout turned up dead overnight on several occasions at the University of California Cooperative Extension's coho salmon monitoring station on Felta Creek near Healdsburg in 2008.

After the regulatory agencies moved to regulate the wine industry's pumping for frost protection, Sonoma County grape growers responded by forming a private, mutual benefit corporation called the Russian River Watershed Council. Its main purpose was to head off the Water Board's regulations in favor of a county-approved regulatory and permitting regime administered by grape growers themselves. The growers would determine their own best management practices and – this is the rub of the entire story -- would privately own any stream gauge monitoring data collected in the process of regulating frost protection activities.

Ultimately, this effort fell apart, and the Water Board adopted regulations on frost protection that went into effect this year after a round of lawsuits. But these regulations clearly reflect the wine industry's political influence, including the industry-friendly goal of “minimiz[ing] the impact of regulation on the use of water for purposes of frost protection,” according to a Water Board environmental impact report. The growers are only required to supply an annual self-generated report on their use of water for frost protection, after the growing season is over, rather than provide real-time data via stream gauges that would be helpful for preventing fish kills.

“It may be unreasonable to require all frost diverters to install real-time diversion monitoring," the Water Board EIR states.

One of the attorneys involved in creating the Russian River Watershed Council was a Sacramento attorney named Peter Kiel. And that brings us back to current events. Last week, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported that Mr. Kiel was the author of a grape grower-oriented bill to create a “Russian River Irrigation District” in northern Sonoma County. The Press Democrat story quoted from my July 29th AVA story entitled “Wine Industry Water Grab?”, including referring to the term “water grab” in its headline, but failed to acknowledge me or my story or even the AVA by name (see “Off the Record” for more).

Many observers speculate that an overarching purpose of the Russian River Irrigation District bill would be to keep data concerning the wine industry's water use private. “They want State Sen. Mike McGuire to carry the irrigation district bill, and part of the motivation is to keep a lid on how much groundwater they use,” says Alan Levine.

Contact Will Parrish at wparrish[at]riseup[dot]net


  1. Eric Sunswheat August 26, 2015

    Perhaps attribution in Will’s article referencing Russian River Watershed Council, was really about the Russian River Property Owners Association.

  2. wparrish August 27, 2015

    Those are two separate organizations.

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