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Farmers prepare for frost-water rules

Issue Date: December 3, 2014
By Steve Adler
Sonoma County winegrape grower Pete Opatz, who has been involved in the Russian River frost protection issue for several years, says farmers in the county and in neighboring Mendocino County will push forward with compliance with new frost regulations.
Photo/Steven Knudsen

After losing a court battle with state regulators, Mendocino and Sonoma county grape growers are now preparing water demand management plans that must be in place before they will be allowed to divert water from the Russian River watershed for frost protection.

About 300 growers from the two counties met with water officials in Cloverdale last week to learn more about what will be required of them.

The final setback in the three-year court battle took place when the California Supreme Court declined to hear the case, following an appeals court opinion that reversed a 2012 ruling by Mendocino County Superior Court Judge Ann Moorman. Moorman had ruled that the state overstepped its bounds in trying to impose severe restrictions on the use of sprinkler irrigation to protect vines from springtime frost. As a result of the Supreme Court declining to hear the case, frost-protection regulations imposed by the State Water Resources Control Board are now in effect.

"Although this case sets a very troubling precedent for water rights in California, the growers in the Russian River watershed are properly turning their efforts toward compliance," said Jack Rice, California Farm Bureau Federation associate counsel.

Rice said Farm Bureau will continue to support its members in finding ways to efficiently and effectively comply with the frost regulation while protecting the integrity of water rights.

"I wouldn't say that anyone is happy with how the court case was resolved, but at this point, people are now saying that they will be compliant," said Devon Jones, executive director of the Mendocino County Farm Bureau. "We fought a good fight and we felt it was appropriate to challenge the regulation."

Pete Opatz, a Sonoma County winegrape grower who has been involved in the frost protection issue from its inception, said farmers "will push forward with compliance with an eye on the larger conflict to retain water for agriculture."

Grape growers who for many years have relied on sprinkler irrigation to protect vulnerable vines as they emerge from dormancy in the spring must now have an approved water demand management plan in place before they will be allowed to withdraw water for frost protection between March 15 and May 15, the period of time when vines are most vulnerable.

The purpose of a water plan, according to the board, is to assess the extent to which diversions for frost protection can affect stream stage, as well as to manage the combined effect of the diversions to prevent salmonid stranding and mortality.

According to information distributed at the Cloverdale meeting, corrective actions may include alternative methods for frost protection, best management practices, better coordination of diversions, construction of offstream storage facilities, real-time stream gauge and diversion monitoring, or other alternative methods of diversion. Corrective actions also may include revisions to the number, location and type of stream stage monitoring gauges, or to the stream stages considered necessary to prevent stranding mortality.

The deadline for submitting water management plants to the state board is Feb. 1. Diversions of water for frost protection that are not in accordance with a board-approved plan will be subject to enforcement action, the board warned.

The controversy stems from a morning in April 2008, when 10 young salmon were found stranded on the Russian River near Hopland. Based on the discovery, the National Marine Fisheries Service concluded that thousands of "early life-stage salmonids" had been killed in the incident, a figure farmers consider unsubstantiated.

According to Jones, there are about 21,000 acres of vineyards that have been relying on sprinkler irrigation for frost protection: 6,000 acres in Mendocino County and 15,000 in Sonoma County.

A lot of questions remain in the implementation of the regulation, she said.

"We are now trying to determine what we need to do to be compliant initially and then move forward as this evolves over the next several years," she said. "We don't have a lot of the answers. All of the issues that we had initially with the regulation are still there. We don't have any more information regarding flow standards, we don't have any more information on overall costs, we don't know what a monitoring program is going to look like and we don't know what the enforcement is going to look like. All of these questions that were brought up in the litigation are still there."

Both Jones and Tito Sasaki, president of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, pointed out that the majority of growers who farm in the Russian River watershed have already taken steps to comply with the rules.

"The most important thing is that everyone who is affected is aware of these requirements and that they have to submit a management plan by Feb. 1," Sasaki said.

Jones said a meeting has been scheduled this week with Laurel Marcus of Fish Friendly Farming to discuss how that program will facilitate the creation of water demand management plans. Fish Friendly Farming is a third-party certified program. Participating growers must adhere to a number of best management practices that help with water quality.

Certifiers of the fish-friendly practices include the county agricultural commissioner, a representative of NMFS and a representative of the regional water board.

As California enters the rainy season, growers say they hope for a wet winter and mild spring. If there is a severe frost in the spring, Jones said, what growers do to protect their vines will depend primarily on the available water supply.

"We did see some creative uses of water this year. We had a lot of growers who waited until later to turn on, and they didn't see damage, so they learned from that. We've seen other growers who tried alternative methods of frost protection that work down to certain temperatures. But if we don't have the water to frost-protect, obviously there is going to be damage," Jones said.

She added that growers have said that if they have a certain allocation of water, they would rather frost-protect and hope they can irrigate less—because if they don't frost-protect, they won't have a crop to irrigate anyway.

"So they have to make the decision over what water allocation they have and how they want to use it," she said.

Sasaki had similar thoughts.

"If there are no frost events, we are fine. If the frost is just one or two nights, we might be OK, but if it continues for three or four nights it could be a problem. It is an 'iffy' question," he said.

(Steve Adler is associate editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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