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Not a Drop for Redwood Valley Grapes

Vineyard owners blame bureaucracy as California district cuts off all agricultural water, limits home use

by Jane Firstenfeld
Source: Taste of Redwood Valley
Redwood Valley, Calif.—“Turning off the ag water was the hardest decision our board has ever made,” Redwood Valley County Water District (RVCWD) general manager Bill Koehler said last week, after the district board voted to completely eliminate water supplies for agricultural use. Wine grapes are the primary agricultural crop within the district.

Redwood Valley, an unincorporated area in the northeast corner of Mendocino County, normally produces some $16 million in wine grapes that yield $60 million in added revenue when converted to wine, according to Koehler. With municipal water supplies reduced to zero, growers must rely on existing ponds and wells. “We are looking at 20%-40% crop reduction this year. If we don’t make it through the frost season, it will be even worse,” he predicted.

Wines Vines Analytics shows 11 wineries operating within Redwood Valley, nine with vineyards. Koehler estimated there are some 2,200 vineyard acres in the district; about 600 of these rely on irrigation water for frost protection.

The primary source of municipal water is Lake Pillsbury, which in turn is the primary source for Lake Mendocino, constructed in 1959 by the Army Corps of Engineers to provide flood control to the Russian River downstream in neighboring Sonoma County. Mendocino County purchases surplus water from Sonoma County.

Because of this confusing and seemingly illogical situation, “Lots of folks have chosen to blame Sonoma,” Koehler said. He counters this point of view: “Sonoma has twice petitioned the state water board to reduce the flow from Lake Mendocino. I think they are being good neighbors.”

The RVCWD is, he said, the state’s only county water district that serves both domestic and agricultural customers. Normally ag uses roughly two-thirds of the water and domestic uses soak up the remainder, but potable domestic water brings in two-thirds of district revenues, Koehler told Wines & Vines. “I don’t have enough water to go around.”

That said, domestic use is now limited to 50 gallons per person per day, leaving little to spare for landscaping or livestock.

Grower/regulator sees both sides
Pam Ricetti is a member of the district’s board of directors; as a grapegrower with 40 acres in Redwood Valley, she recused herself from the board’s vote April 17.

“There’s nothing I can do,” she told Wines & Vines. “I have a pond that may have 24-30 hours of frost protection. Predominantly we dry farm. Last year, we used maybe 2-3 acre-feet to irrigate.

“It’s a hardship on everyone,” Ricetti said. Last week she toured the nearby Eel River watershed with other government officials. “Its frustrating. We are trying to get an extra 800 acre-feet from Lake Pillsbury, but I found out on this tour that the legal staff of NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) has declared that grapes are not personal property, so lack of irrigation is ‘not a hardship.’ I am dumbfounded. Really?”

Recent North Coast rains provided adequate rain for the Eel River’s treasured salmon run. “In two weeks, we could have gotten it in the lake. It’s ridiculous,” Ricetti said. The river, she added, is now running at what is needed.

“The saddest thing is that I get phone calls all day long about horses and cows. How can I give them extra water? Why don’t why we have one set of rules?” she asked.

The Corps of Engineers runs the lake based on rules formed in the 1950s, she explained. “Sonoma County owns the lake. They own the water, they paid for the lake. Redwood Valley doesn’t have a water right, just 2,800 acre-feet. What would solve our problems is if we could store the water.”

Jared Huffman, the North Bay’s congressional representative, is introducing a bill to change the rules, but, Ricetti said, the Democrat is experiencing “partisan pushback” in Congress.

One angry grapegrower
Tom Johnson founded 500-case Silversmith Vineyards and currently farms 14 acres of vineyards in Redwood Valley. He’s also an attorney who has represented water districts in Mendocino County for almost 40 years.

“We do not have a water shortage, we have a regulatory shortage,” said Johnson, who contended Lake Sonoma has about 160,000 acre-feet. He charged regulators with hoarding water.

“Redwood Valley is getting shot in the leg. We requested 800 acre-feet of water from Lake Pillsbury, a minuscule amount. This will not help the fish in the Eel River; Lake Pillsbury has absolutely nothing to do with fish. It has 40,000-60,000 acre-feet of water.

“There is plenty of water: It’s how it’s put to use,” he said. “Redwood Valley is short of water only because everyone else is hoarding it.”

Johnson has a pond and will use it for drip irrigation. “I will suffer through frost season,” he said.

Members of Taste of Redwood Valley, the area’s vineyard/winery organization, will meet this week. A warning of frost forecast for last weekend did not come to pass, bringing a few days of relief to growers. 

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