Coho vs. Pinot

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

BY WILL PARRISH

Original Article Published in the Bohemian, Sept 2-8, 2015

Coho vs. PinotIn July, roughly 1,000 rural Sonoma County residents overflowed classrooms and small meeting chambers at five informational sessions convened by the State Water Resources Control Board. It would be hard to exaggerate many attendees’ outrage. At one meeting, two men got in a fistfight over whether to be “respectful” to the state and federal officials on hand.

The immediate source of their frustration is a drought-related “emergency order” in portions of four Russian River tributaries: Mill Creek, Mark West Creek, Green Valley Creek and Dutch Bill Creek. Its stated aim is to protect endangered coho salmon and threatened steelhead trout. Among other things, the 270-day regulation forbids the watering of lawns. It places limits on car washing and watering residential gardens. It does not, however, restrict water use of the main contemporary cause of these watersheds’ decline: the wine industry.

“The State Water Resources Control Board is regulating lawns? I challenge you to find ornamental lawns in the Dutch Bill, Green Valley and Atascadero Creek watersheds,” said Occidental resident Ann Maurice in a statement to the water board, summing up many residents’ sentiments. “It is not grass that is causing the problem. It is irrigated vineyards.”

In what many see as a response to public pressure, the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, an industry trade group, announced last week that 68 of the 130 vineyards in the four watersheds have committed to a voluntary 25 percent reduction in water use relative to 2013 levels. According to commission president Karissa Kruse, these 68 properties include about 2,000 acres of land.

Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore, whose district encompasses more Russian River stream miles than that of any other county supervisor, has been strongly involved in developing the county’s response to the water board regulations and was the only supervisor to attend any of the state’s so-called community meetings.

“I applaud the winegrowers for stepping up,” Gore says in an interview. “I think they saw the writing on the wall. They knew they weren’t going to continue to be exempt from this sort of regulation for long, and there are also winegrowers already doing good things in those watersheds who wanted to tell their stories.”

Initially, state and federal officials who crafted the regulation said they preferred cutting off “superfluous” uses as a first step. “Our target is not irrigation that provides an economic benefit,” says State Water Resources Control Board member Dorene D’Adamo of Stanislaus. D’Adamo has been the five-member board’s point person for developing the regulations and was appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown as its “agricultural representative.”

Many residents argue that there is no way of monitoring the vineyards’ compliance with the voluntary cutback because their water use has never been metered. Moreover, these residents’ passionate response to the regulation did not emerge in a vacuum. Rather, it tapped a deep well of resentment regarding the long-standing preferential treatment they say state, county and even federal officials have accorded the powerful, multibillion dollar regional wine industry.

As longtime Mark West Creek area resident Laura Waldbaum notes, her voice sharpening into an insistent tone, “The problem in Mark West Creek did not start with the drought.”

A RIVER RAN THROUGH IT

As California lurches through its fourth year of an unprecedented drought, it is no surprise that long-simmering Russian River water conflicts have come to the forefront. At the center of this struggle are salmon and trout, whose epic life journeys play out on a scale akin to Homer’s Odysseus.

Historically, the Russian River has been known for its runs of three different salmonids: coho salmon (which are federally listed as “endangered”), Chinook salmon and steelhead trout (which are “threatened”). All three fish are born in local creeks, or in the river itself, migrate to the ocean as they near adulthood and finally return to their natal streams to spawn and die.

As a growing body of scientific evidence indicates, salmon are crucial to the health of aquatic ecosystems, and their carcasses provide an enormous quantity of marine nutrients that can fertilize vegetation throughout a watershed. Much of the abundance of Pacific Northwest forests is traceable to the region’s salmon runs.

The mountains of Sonoma County are veined with streams that historically provided some of the Pacific Coast’s finest steelhead and coho spawning grounds and rearing nurseries. But the four horsemen of fisheries collapse—habitat degradation, dams, weakening of the genetic pool through the use of hatcheries, and overfishing—have taken an enormous toll. The destruction of ancient forests, instream gravel mining, the construction of the Warm Spring and Coyote Valley dams, and widespread agricultural development along waterways are among the main culprits. Overall, says National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) biologist David Hines, the river has devolved into “a basket case.”

“Some of the coastal streams in Mendocino County and further north have stronger fish populations because, even with the history of overlogging, the land hasn’t sustained as much damage,” Hines says. “In the Russian and San Lorenzo rivers [in Santa Cruz County], especially, much more of the habitat is simply gone.”

According to Fred Euphrat, a Santa Rosa Junior College forestry instructor who holds a doctorate in watershed management, the wine industry’s extraordinary expansion throughout the Russian River watershed in the last 40 years has been a major cause of the watershed’s enormous trouble.

“There’s been massive habitat destruction, habitat fragmentation, alteration of land and drainage water that delivers sediment to streams,” he notes.

The vast majority of regional vineyards are irrigated. Many use water from wells, an unknown proportion of which are hydrologically connected to the river. Others pump water directly from streams, creeks and the river itself….

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1 comment

  1. Meryl Azar

    It’s either vineyards or subdivisons in Sonoma county. There seems to be more wine than water. Pesticides kill which many vineyards owners are using to spray their grapes. Pestcides cause many diseases. It pollutes the air and the water in the nearby wells. A known fact. That is why when a vineyard is sprayed, the work force is dressed in protective gear from head to toe. Yet the nearby residents are subjected to serious health issues in addition to polluting and/or draining their wells. They are forced to buy water since many homes in Sonoma county have wells that have gone dry or are not fit for human consumption, especially when a vineyard is planted close by. City water is very expensive and is not available to many homes in Sonoma county. City water is not the solution for healthy drinking water anyhow. It is also quite expensive. Another subject for a different time. Why should the locals limit their usage when the wineries are sucking all of the water to grow their grapes? Wineries need to be forced to pay for the repairs to our broken down roads full of potholes that are not safe to drive on and are hard on cars costing the local residents lots of dollars to fix their cars. Tourism is up and so are all the prices.The local residents are not benefitting from tourism and are actually penalized since they are subsidizing the wine industry. The locals are forced to move on and many are becoming homeless and sick. Is this humane treatment? Is slavery back when ten people must share a small home because they are barely eeking out a living? Most importantly, winery owners need to be mandated to fund programs for alcoholics who cannot afford $10,000 a month to sit around while they are forced to live in substandard half way houses in shared rooms reading from the 12 steps. I am not suggesting that the 12 steps are not serving a great need and constructive purpose. It is. The sad truth is, it can be cheaper to suffer and die than to live and prosper in one’s health and lifestyle. A mortatorian is needed on all building, vineyards and wineries in Sonoma county. We are now at a serious crisis point. We need to have desalination plants funded so if our wells run dry we can use the water from the ocean even if our oceans become radioactive over a period of time. Another issue for another time. Actually, let’s rip out the grapes and replant with real food. Give the vineyard owners an incentive with tax credits to do this, since money for some of these gentleman farmers and corporate owned vineyards is more important and larger than life itself. Money, status and wine grapes is sadly the new God for many in Sonoma county. The cost of food is already skyrocking along with the housing prices. Enough of all of this tourism. Let’s make Sonoma county a downhome place to live again, as it was in the past for it local residents. This is not progress. It is destruction in its ugliest form. Also, stop calling Sonoma county “Wine country.” Better to refer to Sonoma county as what it can once again can become. A place where one can grow lots of food and survive. By the way, let’s get rid of the tourism council and focus on the essential industries that we need to sustain and survive for a healthy life and environment. Even restaurants have a maximum capacity limit. We do not have the infrastructure that will sustain the amount of people we are cramming into this county and on our roads. Has anyone noticed the miserable faces on many of the people that are in Sonoma county lately? Even many of the tourists are not happy because they are getting ripped off also. Too much of anything equals disaster, including too many people in too small of a space. When rats are too close together, they kill one another. So do people in one form or another. If Sonoma county evicts all of its working class people, who will help the drunk rich who cannot even figure out how to put air in their bicycle tires? Who will clean their homes? Who will care for the sick even if they can afford to hire help? The help will have to be bused in from far away places because the housing in Sonoma county is not affordable for the working class or even the retired folks who chose to live in Sonoma county. Nobody really wins. Drunk or not.Rich or poor. Let’s make this a win-win place for everyone. Get rid of these vineyards and make the winery owners pay for their destruction. Make it not pay to destruct. Best to raise awareness and stand up for health, spirit and life. Has Sonoma county become a Godless heartless place to be? Is it beautiful on its face, but is it becoming rotten on the inside track? Let’s get back to the good old days when Sonoma county was God’s country and a totally beautiful place to live, work and even visit. The people were happy and there was an abundance of everything. There was enough for everyone. Let’s bring back the agriculture we need to grow food and survive. Let’s focus on having clean air, water in our wells and a happy healthy balanced existence that functions better than it is now for all. I hope it is not too late to make this change happen. Stand up and fight because you have to for the change that needs to happen. Hard work and logic can lead to the solution. Peace for all. May we all strive for health and happiness. Sonoma county is God’s country. Let’s bring it back to its potential.

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