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Coho vs. Pinot

On the Russian River, grape growing and fish don't always mix



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The number and size of the river's diversion pumps are just as staggering. We captured photos of 27 diversion pipes that, as a conservative estimate, ranged from eight to 24 inches in diameter. All were attached to intake pumps submerged in the river channel. In several cases, part of the river channel had been excavated with heavy machinery, no doubt, behind small rock wall dams to allow more water to collect at the pump intakes. We also found a handful of artificial channels that led straight to growers' pumps. Two of the pumps' generators were running in the afternoon.

Section 1600 of the California Fish and Game Code requires a permit for "excavating material from channels to install and submerge a pump intake," according to a 2010 Fish and Game memo. Department of Fish and Wildlife environmental scientist Wesley Stokes, who manages stream alteration permits on the upper Russian River, did not respond to requests for information about whether the growers' dams and channels are permitted. According to Chris Carr of the State Water Board's Division of Water Rights, these dams "do not fit the jurisdictional requirements of the California State Water Code."

Most, if not all, of the pumps appear to conform with the legal requirements of the state's water-rights system. And that system requires no meters or any special drought provisions for Russian River grape growers, other than those in the four Sonoma County creeks. Along with residents, the water board is now asking growers in those four areas to file monthly reports on their water use.


For years, wine-industry leaders have opposed regulation on the grounds that it is burdensome and of questionable value. California agribusiness representatives have consistently maintained that they can manage their properties in an environmentally responsible manner without the need for government oversight. In the case of the wine industry, the leading edge of this effort is a marketing and certification initiative called "fish-friendly farming," which has certified 100,000 acres of vineyards, including a majority of those that suckle at the banks of the Russian River.

The initiative was developed by the California Land Stewardship Institute (CLSI), a nonprofit organization based in Guerneville. "I'm not a big fan of regulations," says the group's founder and executive director, Laurel Marcus. "I think they lead to a lot of conflict."

Marcus notes that grape growers are undertaking numerous efforts to increase water efficiency, such as construction of off-stream storage reservoirs in the upper Russian River, which they can fill during high-flows in the wintertime and thereby reduce demand during the frost-protection season and in the summertime, as well as soil-moisture meters to help minimize use of irrigation water.

Industry giant Kendall-Jackson has donated money to the "Flow for Fish" rebate program to provide free water tanks to individuals in the four watersheds who agree to conserve water voluntarily. The program is overseen by Trout Unlimited, and several property owners have signed up so far.

THIS SUCKS Vineyard irrigation pumps are not metered and may draw as much water from the river as they like. - KEN SUND
  • Ken Sund
  • THIS SUCKS Vineyard irrigation pumps are not metered and may draw as much water from the river as they like.

A review of the CLSI's Form 900s filed with the IRS reveals that eight of the organization's nine board members are grape growers. The lone exception is Marcus. The organization's president is Keith Horn, the North Coast vineyard manager of the world's largest wine corporation by revenue, Constellation Brands.

Tito Sasaki, chairman of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau's water committee, says his organization is "against meaningless regulations imposed upon us" and notes that some farmers have agreed to release water voluntarily. In a letter to the water board earlier this year, he wrote, "[R]egulations put a wedge between the regulator and the regulated" and "at times become a hindrance to practical solutions such as the aforementioned release of privately held irrigation water."

Kimberly Burr, an environmental attorney based in Forestville, takes the opposite view.

"If the wine industry really wants to be sustainable, it needs to invite regulation," she says. "And I believe there are some in the industry who truly want healthy, thriving rivers and will come out in favor of regulation."


The lynchpin of state and federal agencies' effort to recover Russian River coho salmon populations is a hatchery breeding and monitoring program that began in 2001, after the river's coho population had plummeted to fewer than 10 returning spawners. The program has cost taxpayers more than $10 million so far and has led to a slight rebound in the river's overall population of fish, which UC Cooperative Extension coho monitoring coordinator Mariska Obedzinski says is in danger of unraveling in the drought.

Fishery officials have been compelled to assess the wine industry's impacts on occasion. At a November 2009 workshop, a National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) biologist presented data showing that, of 60,640 acres of vineyards in the Russian River watershed, an estimated 70 percent come within 300 feet of salmon-bearing streams. In its 2013 Russian River coho salmon recovery plan, NMFS lists agriculture—meaning vineyards, mostly—as the fish's No. 1 threat.

As Alan Levine of the environmental advocacy organization Coast Action Group notes, California State Water Code 1243 orders that the Department of Fish and Wildlife "shall recommend the amounts of water, if any, required for the preservation and enhancement of fish and wildlife resources."

"Exercising regulatory authorities to protect fish is very unpopular with agriculture," says Levine.

Many observers of regional water politics lay much of the blame for a regional lack of watershed protection at the feet of Sonoma County. As a 2011 Bohemian story, "The Wrath of Grapes" noted, the county has elected not to conduct environmental reviews of vineyard well permits. And, as the article also noted, the county's planning supervisor could not recall a single case where the county had rejected a winery application.

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