Ag Alert Update: Judge overturns Russian River frost regulations
By Steve Adler
In a decision hailed as a victory by farmers who grow winegrapes along the Russian River, a Mendocino County Superior Court judge has ruled that the state overstepped its bounds in trying to impose severely restrictive regulations on the use of sprinkler irrigation to protect vines from springtime frost.
Judge Ann Moorman ruled Wednesday that new frost protection regulations being imposed by the State Water Resources Control Board are constitutionally void and that the board exceeded its authority by having adopted regulations that were too broad in nature by including all classes of water rights holders.
Moorman said the state failed to provide the court with compelling evidence that the regulations were necessary.
The state has 60 days to appeal the ruling.
The board originally adopted the regulation in 2011. It would have severely restricted water use for frost protection between March 15 and May 15, the months in which grapevines are emerging from winter dormancy and are most vulnerable to frost damage.
The regulations would have gone into effect in March, but in February, Moorman issued a preliminary injunction delaying implementation pending the result of a combined trial that involved two challenges to the regulation.
The two cases were filed in October 2011. The plaintiffs are Rudy and Linda Light, winegrape growers in Mendocino County, and the Russian River Water Users for the Environment, a group of winegrape and pear growers in Sonoma and Mendocino counties. The two cases were heard together.
"This is a very thorough and well-considered decision with important implications for water users," said Jack Rice, California Farm Bureau Federation associate counsel. "The SWRCB regulation would have significantly impaired the integrity of water rights on the basis of poor science and anecdotes. The judge recognized this shortcoming along with the active efforts of farmers to fix problems where they existed, and concluded that the regulation was unconstitutional."
Rice pointed to two important lessons to be learned from the case.
"First, it is absolutely essential to get involved and stay involved in these issues, even it takes years. Second, farmers should be proactive to address resource concerns when they arise," he said.
For additional coverage, see the Oct. 10 issue of Ag Alert.
(Steve Adler is associate editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.