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When They Came For The Navarro

The (Once Mighty) Navarro. Courtesy Clinton Steeds, via Flickr.

The North Coast wine industry has long acted out a pathological conviction that it is entitled to virtually every single drop of water in every watershed it touches. As in the case of Sonoma County's recent frost protec­tion ordinance, which I detailed in the December 14 Anderson Valley Advertiser, the industry routinely rises up as one — along with their local government allies — to quash any restrictions on its ability to draw water with accustomed impunity, though that particular ordinance is now threatened by disagreements, it seems, about the degree of non-regulation the big corporate growers find acceptable. Yet, there are few industries more in need of restrictions on their water use.

In the past 20 years, the North Coast's alcohol farm­ers have dried up countless creeks and streams, while choking off rivers and filling in their spawning pools with monumental amounts of sediment (entire hillsides worth). They have, moreover, poisoned what water remains with the full menu of chemical fertilizers, soil fumigants, growth hormones, herbicides, defoliants, fun­gicides, pesticides, and systemic poisons most growers use to ensure the bounty and sterility of their crops.

The Napa River — once teeming with life — is now little more than a collection of stagnant pools during many summer months, making it often resemble a breeding ground for mosquitoes more than for fish. The Russian River — regarded until a few decades ago as the greatest Steelhead trout fishery in the country, is now almost entirely devoid of life. As I documented in the November 25th AVA, the river's historically most important salmonid spawning tributary, Mark West Creek, now runs dry every summer as a result of rapa­cious vineyard development. And the Gualala River — heavily under siege by vineyard prospectors like William Hill and Richard Wollack — has seen its Wheatfield Fork running dry for the first time in 2008.

Then there's the Navarro, a proverbial canary in the coal mine for the massive hydrological toll of out-of-control vineyard development in the 1990s. In 1992, the river ran dry for the first time. Whereas the local timber industry was reduced to a pair of specialty mills by that point, and the ranching sector largely consisted of a mere four sheep ranches, the culprit in this specific case was clear: the finance-driven speculative market in premium wines. And that market was only then getting into high gear.

Unlimited Water

Michel Salgues, founding winemaker at Old World French corporation Champagne Louis Roederer's sole American outpost — situated on the benchland above the Anderson Valley, north of Philo — once explained to AVA editor and publisher Bruce Anderson the various reasons his company bought into the previously little-known appellation his company had done so much to put on the map as a premier wine region.

Primary among them was the absence of the well-established regulations governing water and pesticide use by vineyards and wineries, such as exist in France. Like virtually all of the vineyards in grape-dominated Ander­son Valley, Roederer enjoys unimpeded riparian water rights, simply by virtue of having purchased land along the banks of a river that has not yet officially been declared fully appropriated.

The company that David Severn refers to as the Ander­son Valley's pioneer neo-colonizer was, in other words, drawn there by the promise of access to practi­cally unlimited water.

It was in the late-1980s, just before the full-bore onset of the California Premium Grape Rush of the '90s and '00s, that Salgues made his admission to Anderson. The wine-grape prospectors of Napa and Sonoma — men like William Hill of Napa Valley, boldest among the North Coast's mountaintop removal vineyard specialists — had only just begun the process of taming the Valley's alpine hills and stealing the Navarro River's water on behalf of a globalizing wine market. At the time, in spite of multiple logging booms across the previous 130 years, the river still had a strong chance of regaining its former state of abundance.

At roughly the time that Hill arrived in the Valley, however, the investment spigot swung wide open for regional grape prospectors. Among the well-heeled enti­ties that invested in a vineyard on the slopes above Philo was multi-national food and water corporation Groupe Danone of Paris, the world's largest seller of fresh dairy products (think Dannon Yogurt) and bottled water (Evian Water). It purchased local champagne producer Scharffenberger Cellars in 1989, incorporating the com­pany under the umbrella of its larger existing champagne brand, Pommery et Greno.

Thus began a heady time for Scharffenberger, which quickly gained international recognition. During a 1990 summit celebrating the end of the Cold War, George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev even toasted each other whilst their glasses were brimming with Scharffenberger bubbly. Now flush with cash, company founder John Scharffenberger purchased a 640-acre parcel in Philo on behalf of his new parent company in 1989, planting a vineyard there that soon grew to encompass 120 acres of grapes.

The son of a real estate tycoon whose multi-billion dollar investment firm owned such national outfits as Motel 6 and Home Insurance, Scharffenberger (the man, not the company) has recently been the subject of numerous favorable media profiles, including in the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle, which have portrayed him as an eclectic self-made entrepreneur, whose chocolate and tofu brands have enjoyed national success. In various Mendocino County circles, Scharffenberger has also cultivated an image of himself as an environmentally sensitive steward of the land. The details of the 1990 application he submitted to the California Division of Water Rights, however, utterly belie that image.

Scharffenberger proposed building a series of reservoirs to store 180 acre feet of water for irrigation and frost protection. The reservoirs were to be supplied by one of the many unnamed former streams that fed the Navarro. He also proposed to divert a whopping three cubic feet per second of water from Indian Creek for frost protection. By comparison, the City of Fort Bragg drew 2.7 cubic feet per second of water from the much larger Noyo River, with which it supplied some 6,000 people and businesses. The diversion by Scharffenberger, had it been approved, would have easily been among the largest put on the books by an individual farm in the history of the North Coast.

It turns out, however, that Scharffenberger was probably never serious about gaining approval for so large a diversion. Rather, he was engaged in a classic developer ploy. By striking a compromise later on, whereby he withdrew the original application, he postured as reasonable and concessionary, and was able to secure a permit to draw more water than he ever could have expected otherwise.

In 1992, Scharffenberger withdrew his Indian Creek application, after Connie Best of the Anderson Valley Land Trust negotiated from him a donation of water and development rights along a 3,000-foot stretch of Indian Creek to her Anderson Valley Land Trust. The group Friends of the Navarro River had previously filed a protest against the diversion with the DWR. They withdrew the protest after Scharffenberger reached the deal with Best.

As long-time Mendocino Coast environmentalist Roanne Withers recalled in a mid-2000 edition of the Anderson Valley Advertiser, “This grand compromise was paraded around the Anderson Valley to portray Scharffenberger (and other vineyards owners inclined to follow in his footsteps) as a concerned 'steward of resources'.”

In the meantime, the DWR approved Scharffenberger’s toned down application in early 1995. As Withers recalled, the approval instantly emboldened the Valley's other grape growers who were likewise chomping on the bit to cash in on the hordes of investment dollars flowing into the area.

“Vineyard owners saw their opening to cut more oak trees, plant more grapes, and install more illegal storage ponds,” Withers wrote. “Withdrawal of Scharffenberger protests… and approval of Scharffenberger’s application guaranteed more water could be claimed for grapes by the time after-the-fact water applications came up for DWR review.”

In an ironic twist, the Scharffenberger brand — which includes the Pacific Echo winery in Fort Bragg — was bought out by none other than Roederer Estate in 2004.

Filing Suit

The aforementioned Roanne Withers has been active in labor and environmental politics in Mendocino County for close to four decades. Originally a labor organizer as part of the Industrial Workers of the World, Withers was living on a property in Elk, adjacent to the Navarro, at the time the premium grape rush began. For her, the devastation she subsequently witnessed in the river was deeply personal.

“I began in the early 90s to notice a shift in the river — the deadness of the river, the filling up of the river,” she recalls. “This was my place to renew, the place I went to commune with nature. Herons would fly up and down the river, wildflowers would be blooming. It was just fabulous. And it was being ruined.”

Withers has never been one to take the pillage of nature in her own backyard lightly. In addition to her own stalwart accomplishments as an earth defender, her long-time partner, the late Ron Guenther, was perhaps Mendocino County's most effective and influential radical environmentalist of the 1970s and '80s. Guenther's earlier exploits, such as scuttling high-rise condominium complexes in Venice Beach in the early-'70s by firebombing them during the construction stage, made him one among a small handful of real-life inspirations for the colorful characters in the Edward Abbey's classic novel on ecological sabotage The Monkeywrench Gang (see the AVA's obituary for Guenther at

Beginning in 1994, Withers joined up with long-time Navarro resident Hillary Adams to prepare a lawsuit aimed at halting the wine industry's rapid drawdown and silting up of the Navarro. Adams had done considerable legwork on the lawsuit before Withers came along. For her part, Withers had already gotten her feet wet in the process of suing to protect a watershed from overdraft when she successfully sued the City of Fort Bragg to prevent a needless expansion of its appropriation of the Noyo River.

The lawsuit targeted the State Water Resources Con­trol Board and, specifically, its Division of Water Rights (DWR) — in Withers' words, “one of the meanest nests of entrenched vipers in the arid state of California.” The suit also named Ted Bennett and Deborah Cahn, owners of Navarro Vineyards, as well as various other grape growers who had applied during that same general period for water diversion permits from the DWR.

The suit simply asserted that the DWR violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the state’s Water Code, and the Public Trust Doctrine when it approved a diversion and storage reservoir that Bennett and Cahn had constructed. Its purpose, however, was far broader. By establishing new case law governing the di­version of water for agricultural purposes, it would have set a precedent on behalf of watershed advocates throughout the state, who were faced with similar condi­tions in the areas where they lived.

As Withers wrote concerning the suit, it “would make the state enforce its public trust responsibilities in all Northern California coastal watersheds on behalf of salmon (or 'salmonids,' representing a range of fish spe­cies classified as salmon varieties) and other aquatic spe­cies.” As a reflection of its level of importance, Steve Volker, one of the most high-profile environmental attorneys in California, agreed to take on the case.

A New Investment Climate

At the same time, the roster of big corporate vine­yards and wineries that sought to extract the region's hydrological resources was growing, not only in the Anderson Valley, but throughout Mendocino County. As one indication of the extent to which the area's water and land were being sought after by larger corporations, one of Mendo's two most prominent historic family wineries, Fetzer Vineyards of Ukiah, was bought out by multi-billion dollar alcohol conglomerate Brown-Forman Cor­poration. The purchase instantly gave the corporation ownership of nearly 20 percent of Mendocino County's standing winegrape acreage. The other historic Mendo winery, Parducci Vineyards and Estates, changed hands from the small investment fund that had managed it since 1971 to none other than William Hill in 1996.

In their 1994 book Through the Grapevine, Glen Mar­tin (Mondavi Winery) and Jay Stuller (a public rela­tions guru at Chevron Corporation) described the impact of Brown-Forman’s 1992 purchase on the wine industry at large. “The deal was good for the Fetzer family, but it didn’t bode well for smaller winery operations,” they wrote. “The message was: ‘Get big or get out’.” The message of that sale particularly seemed to apply to win­eries in Mendocino County.

One reflection of the mood pervading the local high-end wine trade was the founding of an organization called Associated Vintage Group, headquartered in Hopland, which acted as an all-purpose grape-growing, crushing, case bottling, and wine storage firm on behalf of clients throughout the North Coast. The company's biggest money man was retired nuclear engineer Richard Godwin, who had formerly been chairman of the US Joint Nuclear Agency and the Under Secretary of De­fense for Acquisition under Ronald Reagan, as well as president of the world's largest construction and engi­neering firm, Bechtel.

Distilling his basic business philosophy, Godwin told one industry trade publication in 1996, “We provide a service that Bechtel would provide to Chevron… Beauty is secondary. What is important is efficiency and qual­ity.” At one of the high-points of speculation in the wine industry, during the mid-1990s, the company generated nearly $100 million in annual revenue. It was an invest­ment partner in numerous major wineries in Sonoma and Mendocino Counties.

In Potter Valley and on the west side of the Ukiah Valley, meanwhile, one of the Napa Valley's most pres­tigious wineries, Robert Mondavi, bought up a handful of expansive parcels and developed 422 acres of them into vineyards. Dunnewood Vineyards, a 180,000-case winery purchased by Constellation Brands (currently the world's largest wine corporation, with nearly $5 billion in annual revenue), switched over to a Mendocino appellation in the latter part of the '90s, whereupon it began promoting the county heavily in advertisements.

When it came to getting big in the way that Martin and Stuller's book indicated, however, no other company was doing so as quickly as Kendall-Jackson. Founded by San Francisco property rights attorney-turned-winemaker Jess Jackson, who has since secured an annual spot on Forbes' ranking of the world's 500 richest people, the company first bought into the Anderson Valley in 1988 with its purchase of the Valley's first post-Prohibition winery, Edmeades.

In 1998, Kendall-Jackson purchased William Hill's infamous Peachland estate — not only a business trans­action, but a symbolic passing of the torch from one rapacious hillside vineyard developer to another. Roughly eight years later, Jackson cleared 250 new acres on this already horribly damaged parcel, planting them to pinot noir. Jackson's company, which now owns more than 14,000 acres of vineyards in California alone, also then bought two other Anderson Valley hillside parcels that it developed into vineyards. As a result, it now owns the second biggest portfolio of the Valley's grape acre­age, next to Roederer.

The nature of Jackson's involvement in the Anderson Valley is a reflection of Mendocino County's role in the California wine industry in general. In general, a giant sucking sound pervades the Mendo grape-growing regime. Most of the county's present 16,000 acres in grapes are owned by people who do not, in fact, live in the county. Moreover, even growers who do live in the area typically sell their crops to big wine corporations located in those two more prominent counties to the south, who supply the resulting product into a global market in high-end booze.

By the end of the '90s, the changes that this buoyant market had wrought on the North Coast were unmistak­able. During that 10-year span, standing grape acreage in the Anderson Valley had gone from perhaps around 500 to more than 2,500. In 1989, Mendocino County was home to 9,149 standing acres of wine grapes. In Sonoma County, there were 22,908 standing grape acres and 270,000 in California as a whole.

By 2001, when the speculation-fueled vineyard plant­ing boom finally began leveling off, Mendocino County's winegrape acreage had increased by more than 60%, to 15,000. Sonoma County's rate of expansion was far more dizzying, reaching a total of more than 57,000 acres. In California as a whole, more than 200,000 new grape acres were planted in that dozen years.

The toll the grape rush was exacting on the Navarro was enormous. In 1969, the California Department of Fish and Game conducted a study on the Navarro River and calculated an average flow rate on that day of 8 cubic feet per second. On September 21, 2001, a USGS flow gauge indicated average flow that day of 1.1 cubic feet per second.

In the meantime, Withers and Adams pressed ahead with their lawsuit. As Withers wrote at the time, their lawsuit was “probably the last chance for protecting and sustaining the Navarro River and its aquatic ecosys­tems.”

In 1996, they had helped compel the Division of Water Rights to conduct an investigation concerning the preponderance of unpermitted — hence, illegal — reser­voirs in the Navarro River basin, as well as throughout the North Coast. The investigation wrapped up after two years, revealing that 130 such reservoirs existed in the Navarro alone (a total that has doubtless increased dra­matically in the intervening years). There were 1,771 unpermitted diversions in the North Coast region as a whole, including in the Russian, Gualala, Garcia, Peta­luma, Eel, and other rivers.

Walking The Vineyards

For Withers and Adams, part of the administrative process of building their lawsuit was to file an protest with the Division of Water Rights whenever vineyard owners applied for diversion permits. Next, Withers or Adams would conduct a mandatory arbitration proceed­ing with a representative of the vineyard. The arbitration meetings consisted of meeting a representative at the vineyard, along with regulatory scientists from the Department of Fish and Game and National Marine Fisheries, and walking the slopes on which the vast cor­duroy-like rows of grapes were planted.

Thus, few people have walked as many Anderson Valley vineyards as Withers. No living environmentalist, therefore, has seen the anatomy of the Navarro River's destruction so close up. By Withers' own count, she walked roughly a dozen vineyards from top-to-bottom during the late-'90s and early-'00s. These were the peak years, it so happens, of the grape planting binge in the Anderson Valley — hundreds of new acres were being installed every year.

“What I saw absolutely blew my mind,” Withers says.

In the course of the walks, Withers witnessed a sub­stantial part of the vast network of diversion ponds, water pumps, small dams on ephemeral streams, large dams on bigger creeks, French drain borings, 1,000-foot wells, and various other mechanisms by which the Anderson Valley's vineyards have conducted their ongoing collective theft of the Navarro River basin's water.

As Withers saw, the water diversions often start at the very peak of the mountain. Virtually every ephemeral (seasonal) stream running down to the valley bottom is dammed. The water is stored in huge ponds, which are only occasionally visible from major roadways, for irri­gation and frost protection. The vineyards she walked in­cluded some of the Valley's biggest: Roederer, Kendall-Jackson, and Scharffenberger.

“So there were little creeks that salmon used to spawn in that would be completely dried up, because all the water was sucked up and stored in these ponds,” Withers says. “To try to explain that to people, for them to have a visual experience and a feeling for it — it's hard to fully understand unless you've actually seen the effects.”

In one memorable case, Withers walked a vineyard owned by Kendall-Jackson, which had just recently ap­plied for a permit with the DWR and had a big pipe directly in the Navarro River, siphoning it off into a nearby pond. Roughly a dozen Jackson attorneys clad in suits were on hand to attempt to intimidate Withers and the regulatory scientists, who were visibly cowed.

To be continued...


  1. chuck becker February 13, 2011

    This is a phenomenal piece that deserves statewide, if not nationwide attention. I remember as a kid growing up in AV, water was always an issue. There was only so much, and some years it wasn’t enough. Had water usage been managed properly, this should have been the natural limit to how much development could be supported. It looks like money trumped good stewardship and sustainability. It’s too bad, because some limited amount of viticulture could have been a real good thing.

    Lemme ask this (ignorance from living in the ‘burbs): Is there a county review now that evaluates water usage, etc and issues permits for vineyard usage?

    Chuck Becker
    AVHS ’68

  2. Will Parrish September 12, 2011

    Chuck, I’m sorry I didn’t answer this at the time. The answer: “No.” Thank you for the kind words on the piece.

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