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Most of the vineyards in the Russian River's lowlands are prone to frost damage. In spring, grape vines 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 grape yields—and wine sales. 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 Russian River grape-grower Rodney Strong noted in a 1993 interview with UC Berkeley's Regional Oral History Office, 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 Mayacama Creek, one of the Russian River's five largest tributaries.
Frost-protection pumping in April 2008 led to dewatering on a scale perhaps unprecedented in the Russian River's history. On several frigid mornings, winegrape growers diverted more than 30 percent of the river's flow in Mendocino County alone, as measured at the Hopland US Geological Service gauge. The National Marine Fisheries Service estimated that 25,872 steelhead trout died as a result of frost-protection pumping in the upper Russian on a single day: April 20, 2008.
In response, the state water board moved to establish regulations on frost-protection pumping, albeit with the industry-friendly goal of "minimizing the impact of regulation on the use of water for purposes of frost protection," according to a water board environmental impact report. The wine industry responded with an intensive lobbying campaign, punctuated by efforts from U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson of Napa—co-founder of the Congressional Wine Caucus and a Lake County vineyard owner himself—to forestall the regulations and question their scientific basis.
Close observers of county water politics say that such episodes have cowed regulators, since the wine industry wields considerable political muscle. Data I helped compile from California's secretary of state showed that the California Association of Winegrape Growers and the San Francisco–based Wine Institute were two of the top five spenders among agribusiness organizations on lobbying California politicians in 2009 and 2010, when the frost-protection regulations were emerging.
"Regulators are under a lot of pressure to treat the industry with kid gloves," says former Petaluma city councilmember David Keller, who is now the Bay Area director for Friends of the Eel River. "In the arena where the State Water Resources Control Board has jurisdiction, they've failed to strongly protect the public trust, although they are getting more serious. But the county has been missing in action on a lot of important issues."
During the dry months, the Sonoma County Water Agency releases water from the Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma reservoirs (with much of the former consisting of water diverted from the Eel River) to ensure they meet the minimum stream flow in the river mandated by the state. In part, these minimum flows are designed to ensure fish survival.
The water agency supplies this water to the cities within the Russian River watershed, such as Santa Rosa, but also shunts these liquid resources across the Petaluma Gap via pipes to Petaluma and the water-starved towns of northern Marin County, which lie outside the Russian River drainage. This year, the agency has been under a requirement to reduce its diversions from the river by 25 percent in keeping with Gov. Brown's emergency drought order.
This requirement does not extend to vineyards. Even if it did, there are few means to monitor the wine industry's water use—unlike that of municipal residents—due to a lack of metering.
"We don't have a countywide breakdown of water use for residences and agriculture," says water agency spokeswoman Ann Dubay.
Having lived in the Russian River watershed for several years, I've been fascinated by the idea that Hopland and Ukiah grape growers had the capacity to reduce the Russian River's flow by as much as 37 percent during an extraordinary 2008 frost-protection "event," to borrow growers' jargon. On July 15, two photographers and I set out on kayaks to document what these pumps actually look like from the perspective of the river.
Our 12-mile trip spanned only a fraction of the 110-mile river artery. Still, what we encountered was staggering. The most immediate problem we noticed is the extent to which river banks are eroding. By trapping sediment, dams force a sluggish river's banks to erode. Lake Mendocino has caused so much erosion that the river channel has dropped by as many as 30 feet in some areas.