Wine Country Water Fight

Battle brews over precious resources

By Jason Dearen
|  Friday, Jan 29, 2010  |  Updated 9:19 AM PDT
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In the cool, fertile wine growing county of Healdsburg in Northern California, grape growers are stomping mad at a new plan to limit the amount of water vineyards can pump from local rivers and streams to protect their crops from frost.  The draft regulation is meant to safeguard coho salmon, a species on the brink of extinction in the region.

Sonoma County, next to the more famous Napa Valley, has a fast-growing wine industry -- vineyard acreage has increased 30 to 40 percent over the past decade, and the county estimates the businesses generate about $2 billion annually.

But now that growth has run up against federal protections for coho salmon, an endangered species that once filled the streams and rivers along California's central and northern coasts and now has crashed to nearly nothing.

In the spring, when hibernating vines start coming to life, temperatures can drop below freezing overnight, destroying the young grapes. During these frigid nights, growers spray river water onto the vines, encasing them in a protective frozen shell that shields them from the harsh weather.

Farmers say one bad night, when temperatures drop five to 10 degrees below freezing quickly, could wipe out huge percentages of their crop.

At issue is the continued existence of the hook-mouthed coho salmon and the threatened steelhead trout that spawn in these coastal streams and rivers -- a habitat that stretches from Alaska to central California. While coho still thrive in Alaska, their once plentiful stocks in California and Oregon are under threat, managers of federal fisheries say.

Under the state's proposed regulation, any pumping would be illegal unless approved by the State Water Board's management program. The new rule could be in effect by 2011.

State water regulators say using river water for frost protection is legal, but are seeking a middle ground that will protect fish and grapes while ensuring some oversight.

With vineyards spreading quickly in the area, it was only a matter of time before the burgeoning industry ran into a water issue.

In 2008 and 2009, both drought years, pumping by vineyards resulted in the deaths of hundreds of coho and steelhead as creek levels dropped, stranding the fish. The kills were well documented in local media, spurring outrage from environmentalists and concern from federal fisheries managers.

Grape growers say a whole year's crop could be wiped out if temperatures drop below freezing and they're unable to spray. Environmentalists say the regulations might be too little too late for the area's coho.

"The state board started looking at frost pumping issues in 1997. They've had over a decade to evaluate this issue," said Jeff Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the environmental groups that filed an intent to sue in an effort to spur action.

 "We can't have more fish kills, that can't happen," Miller said. "If there are further fish kills this spring, we'll probably go to court."

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