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After the Deluge

The big rains came, but the fish are still dying and the grapes aren't growing

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Last weekend, rain fell in drenching, gushing sheets across Northern California. Stream levels bounced up, fish again had room to swim and farmers saw puddles form over their dusty properties. The Russian River, flowing at a trickle of 24 cubic feet per second last week in Mendocino County, had become a torrent of more than 4,000 by Sunday. But the relief did not undo the work of the driest year on state record.

"This did not put this drought to bed in the slightest," says Sean White, general manager of the Russian River Flood Control District. Just over five inches fell in Ukiah, and Lake Mendocino's volume jumped by about 20 percent. But it's still half of its normal February capacity, White says, and there remains the real chance that the reservoir could be empty by September.

THE HEAT

Just before last weekend's deluge, Rhonda Smith, wine grape specialist with the University of California's cooperative extension program, said that even another foot of rain this winter would not end the drought. She expects that the season will likely be a financial disaster for some farmers.

"It's going to be bad," Smith says. "These are the worst water conditions we've ever seen."

Warm weather has sped up vine development, and Smith says an early bud break can be expected. Once the young leaves begin unfolding into the spring sun, farmers will need water at the ready to douse their vines should nighttime temperatures crash—a common means of guarding fruit trees against frost damage. Damaged vines may produce less fruit in the fall, if any at all.

But the water may not be there to protect them. Many growers draw their frost-protection water directly from the Russian River, where flows could drop again if more rain does not maintain the tributaries. For much of this winter already, the mouth of the river has been blocked entirely by a sandbar, which the torrents of most winters usually knock out. Salmon and steelhead have been largely unable to access the river to spawn.

The extreme conditions have raised the stakes both for grape growers, who will need summer irrigation water as well as their frost-protection spray, and conservationists trying to coax coho salmon numbers back to sustainable levels. Relations between the parties are likely to grow hot.

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