Wine Water Issues Simmer in California
Mendocino and Sonoma counties face restrictions; Gallo may pay penalty; vineyard will demo conservation options
One anonymous commenter from Illinois stated, "This is not the correct area to grow winegrapes. Too cold and too hot…Let them suffer the consequences….Save the water for households and small food producing gardens." A Ukiah reader logged in as "Wine Isnt Food" (sic), agreed: "It's their own fault for being greedy and trying to grow grapes in areas that are not fully suitable…they all knew the water situation when they planted the vineyards. Turn off the water!!! Wine is not food."
Reader "Wine Is Food" stood up for the growers, pointing out that, "One of the main reasons we retain a rural/ag character is because of winegrapes. Wineries do provide sustainable jobs. Mendocino County has the highest percentage of organic winegrapes of any county in the state. Most grapegrowers are conservationists, and do try to limit water usage. Most use sustainable practices."
Gallo told to cease and desist
Just south of the Mendocino/Sonoma county line, the Russian River Valley is also a cauldron of contention. On April 20, the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) issued a Cease and Desist Order against E. & J. Gallo subsidiary Gallo Glass, complaining that the winery had illegally diverted Russian River water into an unauthorized 8-acre reservoir on its 395-acre vineyard near Healdsburg. The order proposed that Gallo pay a $73,000 "civil liability." (See the order at waterboards.ca.)
Gallo has not formally responded to the allegations, SWRCB director William L. Rukeyser told Wines & Vines today. Should the company choose to contest the order, he explained, it must appear before a panel of board members, who will serve as a jury. Should Gallo lose this hearing, it could appeal in civil court, where it would face possible penalties of $500 for each day it was in violation of state regulations, an amount totaling some $547,500, according to the complaint.
Although no similar complaints are on the books now, he said, "Anecdotally, there is a lot of talk in the Russian River area, especially about diversion. The Russian River is one of the areas hardest hit by the current drought. Normally, water rights are an obscure area of California law. In drought years, it fascinates everyone."
Water law is highly complex, Rukeyser said. He explained that unlike most Western states, California law regulates only surface water sources, not groundwater. If you own property with a legitimate water right, you may use stream water from a natural watercourse adjacent to your property, but only for specified purposes, at specified times, and only at the specified site. And you can't drill a well six feet from the stream.
"Gallo has water rights for this property, as I recall," he said. "The issue here is place of use and type of use. The allegations here are that the company took a previously existing, quite small stock pond, and expanded it to be a fairly substantial reservoir, then diverted river water--for which it didn't have a right--to store there." Gallo has filed paperwork to regularize the reservoir, but according to Rukeyser, this has not yet been approved.
Sonoma creates vineyard demos
Although Sonoma businesses and residents have been asked to meet a mere 25% water conservation goal this year--compared with a dire 50% mandate in Mendocino--the county is taking measures to mitigate the crisis. It has invested about $ 70,000 in two vineyard water conservation demonstration projects at Hoot Owl Creek/Alexander Valley Vineyards (avvwines.com), which will monitor and compare irrigation methods and low-volume vineyard cooling.
The county water agency is working with vineyard consultant Dr. Mark Greenspan of Advanced Viticulture LLC, who will oversee the projects. Greenspan said equipment will be installed next week, and that live updates will be available online at his website advancedvit.com and the water agency's sonomacountywater.org.
The irrigation demo will show side-by-side comparisons of "just a few rows," Greenspan said, one with two .5gph emitters and the other with a single, 1gph emitter per vine. Soil moisture measuring devices will monitor wetting depths. Another comparison will show differences between longer, less frequent and shorter, more frequent irrigation cycles. Other experiments will measure two levels of deficit irrigation and daytime vs. nighttime irrigation. Vines will be carefully observed throughout the growing season for stress and fruit characteristics.
The 3-acre low-volume vineyard cooling project will trial various techniques for cooling grapes using less water, including a new product that will "mist" the vines. This project is an offshoot of a previous trial at Napa's Beaulieu Vineyards.
In addition to their online presence through harvest, the two plots will be open to the public at least twice during the projects. These demonstrations are tentatively scheduled for July 9 and Aug. 13. Greenspan said, "We're hoping this will not be just a one-way street. We hope to get other growers to come and talk about their experiences. We want this to be a conversation starter."
Some equipment has been rented, and much has been donated by suppliers including Ranch Systems, Crossbow EKO Systems, Aqua-Spy, Jain Irrigation; Alexander Valley Vineyard is contributing the use of the site and much of the required labor, in addition to use of its cash crop.
Bruce Sherwood, SCWA public information officer noted that the past week's unseasonal May rains have not reduced the urgency of the North Coast water situation. "We got only 1,100-acre-feet in Lake Mendocino; literally, a drop in the bucket," he said.
He noted that utility of the Russian River watershed is divided: about one-third is consumed by agriculture, one-third by the urban population and the final third by fish and recreation. "We recognize that agriculture is an enormous part of our economy, "he said. "Winegrape sales alone bring in $400 million a year to our economy, and winegrapes are our top agricultural producer."