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Coho vs. Pinot

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



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When the state was preparing to institute its new emergency regulations on the river, county supervisors Gore, Efren Carrillo and Susan Gorin traveled to Sacramento and met with state officials, including California Secretary of Food and Agriculture Karen Ross (who was a chair of the California Association of Winegrape Growers for 13 years), Department of Fish and Wildlife chair Charles Bonham and water board representatives. According to Gore, the emergency regulations offer a chance for rural residential property owners and the wine industry to work together toward a common goal over the long-term.

"We need to do everything we can do to get water into those streams this year for coho, and then we can have a full-court press when it comes to increasing long-term storage and permanently reducing water use in those areas," Gore says. "For that to happen, everybody—and this includes grape growers—needs to step up." One thing the county is talking about, he says, is targeting marijuana eradication operations in the four watersheds.

A common complaint among environmentalists and other residents is that the county has failed to safeguard limited water supplies by approving all new well construction and vineyards under its jurisdiction, including in the four critical areas for salmon, on a "ministerial" basis instead of requiring environmental review, such as a scientific assessment of the development's impact on endangered species habitat. And, while there are an estimated 800 illegal diversions of waterways in the Russian River watershed, according to water board documents from 2010, the county does not require that developers demonstrate they have a legal water right.

Gore says that the county's "ministerial" well-permitting will remain in place and cited a new well ordinance requiring that wells be installed at least 30 feet from streams as an example of progress toward a stricter groundwater policy.


Few California waterways are historically as important to coho and steelhead as Mark West Creek, one of the four creeks subject to the water board emergency regulation. Veteran fisheries ecologist Stacey Li, formerly with NMFS, says he had "never seen abundances of steelhead that high anywhere else in California" when he worked there in the 1970s and 1980s. The Brown administration's California Water Action Plan acknowledges the creek's historical role, having named it one of California's five highest priority waterways for restoration funding.

Vineyard development in the headwaters started in the late 1990s when the owner of a multimillion-dollar dentistry consulting business in Marin County, called Pride, bulldozed about 80 acres of ridge-top oak woodlands to plant grapes (some of which were not in the Mark West watershed). Next to plant a high-elevation vineyard was Fred Fisher, a General Motors scion. But the coup de grace occurred when Henry Cornell, a hedge fund manager whose investment portfolio includes the world's largest corporate distributor of pipes and valves to the oil industry, purchased 120 acres and clear-cut much of its forestland to make way for a vineyard.

The removal of anchoring vegetation activated a landslide on Cornell's property, which caused 10,000 cubic yards of soil to wash into the creek during a 2006 winter storm. The stream's staircasing pattern of slow deep pools, separated by abrupt but short waterfalls, had been ideal for fish. The landslide filled in many of the spawning pools and turned much of the staircase stream structure into a rapid water chute.

The threat of hillside and mountaintop vineyards, which became an industry craze in the 1990s, was already well-known. The trend was driven by companies like Jackson Family Wines (owners of Kendall-Jackson), which touts the superior quality of mountain-grown grapes in its marketing. The resulting bulldozing of hillside oak groves and grasslands has caused enormous amounts of erosion to wash into streams. The vineyard operators have also dammed or diverted numerous streams and drilled deep wells, equivalent to placing plugs and straws in the very mountain veins that had served as the fish's remaining refuges.

GONE FISHING The Russian River once teemed with salmon and steelhead trout, but irrigation has contributed to the species' demise.
  • GONE FISHING The Russian River once teemed with salmon and steelhead trout, but irrigation has contributed to the species' demise.

In 1999, UC Cooperative Extension specialist Adina Merenlender undertook the only concerted effort to quantify hillside vineyard growth. She found that 1,631 acres of dense hardwood forest, 7,229 acres of oak grassland savanna, 278 acres of conifers and 367 acres of shrub land in Sonoma County succumbed to wine-grape plantings from 1990 to 1997 alone—42 percent in elevations higher than 328 feet. While no similar studies have been conducted since, Sonoma County vineyard acreage grew from 40,001 acres in 1997 to 64,073.2 in 2013, according to the Sonoma County Agriculture Department, with most of that expansion occurring in the Russian River watershed.

Kendall-Jackson's Santa Rosa corporate office did not respond to requests for comment.


For years, Laura Waldbaum and other Mark West Creek residents tried in vain to compel fisheries agencies to intervene in the creek's plight. In Waldbaum's words, they received the "same cut-and-paste answer every time": the county, rather than the state, is the "lead agency" on land-use decisions. Therefore, the state is not in a position to intervene. Moreover, the Department of Fish and Wildlife claimed that the vineyards, because they rely on well water, are not subject to regulatory action.

Mark West Creek residents eventually succeeded in convincing NMFS to do one thing: install several low flow gauges in the creek to help quantify the effects of various water uses.

The meters provided data for a November 2014 study by the environmental consulting company Center for Ecosystem Management and Restoration (CEMAR). It is one of two official studies on water use in the creeks subject to the water board regulation. It notes that approximately one in eight 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 properties' annual water demand is more than two-thirds of the area's 222 residential properties.

As fisheries officials noted at each of the Russian River emergency regulation meetings last month, however, young coho salmon and steelhead trout are most vulnerable in the summertime, when streams are not being replenished with rain. And that's exactly when the grape growers now pumping at the banks of these fish's rearing habitat need water for irrigation. The wine industry uses a similar share of the summertime water in Green Valley Creek, according to a separate CEMAR study.

Now that so much damage has already taken place, Waldbaum and other residents view the state's relatively sudden interest in Mark West Creek water use as part tragedy, part irony.

"This is ground zero for the state," Supervisor Gore says. "If the drought continues, everyone else in California will be looking at the same type of regulation. So the state is looking at this area to see if we can achieve success."

The measure of that success is not only whether coho salmon and steelhead trout survive, environmentalists and policy analysts note, but whether they start to recover. California's Supreme Court has upheld the primacy of the "public trust doctrine," which obligates state government to protect public-trust resources, our common heritage of water, rivers, animals and plants, and their interrelationships, whenever feasible. The doctrine is supposed to underlie all efforts undertaken by regulatory agencies to protect the state's waters. It provides that no one has a right to appropriate water in a manner harmful to the interests protected by the public trust, including fish.

"Salmon bring their biomass back to our rivers from the oceans every year, for free," notes California water policy expert Tim Stroshane, a policy analyst for Restore the Delta in the Bay Area. "What a miracle. That's what protecting the public trust is for. That amazing natural subsidy is why it's the duty of the state to protect them."

An increasing number of Sonoma County residents are deciding that neither the state nor the county are upholding that duty.

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