Growing & Winemaking


Balanced Water Management for Vineyards and Salmon

January 2015
by Kate Getty
The Nature Conservancy calibrates stream-flow gauges.

It’s no secret. In California it’s all about water, especially during one of the worst droughts in history. And especially for Nancy Smith, project director for The Nature Conservancy’s Navarro River Watershed Project in the Anderson Valley of Mendocino County, Calif.

“Working in water management in California is like being an archaeologist working in Egypt,” Smith said. “California is where it all began in western water law. Finding solutions here is like finding the Rosetta stone for water management all over the west.”


  • The Nature Conservancy placed 16 stream-flow gauges to gather data and enable real-time monitoring ?of water availability.
  • Twelve landowners have cooperated and are seeing potential benefits in timing irrigation and planning more water storage.
  • The Conservancy reached out to state water agencies to ?encourage more cooperation in saving fish and serving vineyards.

In the Anderson Valley, a small but booming center of viticulture, it takes a lot of water to support a wine economy. Likewise, it takes watershed-wide planning to balance the needs of this thriving sector with vital species of plants and animals; this includes freshwater science and cutting-edge technology—not to mention a lot of cooperation. The Nature Conservancy has teamed with wine grape growers and other landowners in this region to install stream gauges that will help water managers better balance the needs of both grapes and salmon.

“We have 12 landowners participating in our project so far,” Smith said. “That means 100% of the people we approached agreed to putting a stream gauge on their property. In our work, that kind of cooperation is rare, and it shows how committed these folks are to preserving what makes the Anderson Valley special.” The Conservancy has also been coordinating with the Mendocino Resource Conservation District and Natural Resource Conservation Service to maximize impacts of the project.

In other regions, water conflicts between environmental groups and vineyards recently have led to acrimony and lawsuits, creating a stalemate that threatens both fish populations and the vitality of an important economic sector. But the Anderson Valley is different.

“We’re different because we’re all predisposed to dealing with limited water, so all of us were already doing something to conserve water,” said Michael Fay, Goldeneye winemaker for Duckhorn Wine Co. “We’ve always had to be so aware of how valuable water is, so once we knew The Nature Conservancy had their heart in the right place, everyone in this valley wanted to get involved.”

Plenty of water, but timing is problematic
“It’s important to note,” Smith said, “there is actually plenty of water in the Navarro River watershed. The problem is just a matter of timing. All of the rain falls during the winter, but the vineyards need the water during the dry summer months—just when fish also need every drop possible.”

Fay agrees, but because of other factors like a lack of storage, complicated water rights regulations and scarce information about the flow of the river and its tributaries, “There’s a lot of water in the valley, but it’s not there when we need it agriculturally.”

So the goal of the Navarro River Watershed Project is to use improved technology, combined with regulatory flexibility, to ensure that the abundant annual flows are better managed in the Navarro River for the benefit of people and native species. “We all depend on the river for our wineries,” Fay said. “It defines the whole valley. Really, it’s our lifeblood.”

But that lifeblood for wineries and vineyards in the valley is also the lifeblood for several species of fish, including coho salmon and steelhead trout, which have suffered drastic population declines throughout the area.

“The Conservancy was drawn to the region to answer the question, ‘Can we balance the water needs of fish and the needs of the vineyards?’” Smith explained. “And to answer this, we needed a better picture of what is actually happening on the ground.”

Sixteen new gauges where there was just one
To get that more holistic view of the watershed and its water management, The Conservancy installed a network of 16 water-flow gauges at critical points in the Navarro River watershed.

Participating landowners granted The Conservancy physical access to streams on their properties in order to both install flow gauges and conduct site visits every four to six weeks. During these visits, scientists would monitor stream levels, take manual stream-flow measurements to calibrate the automated gauges and maintain the gauge units. Certain gauges (such as those with continuous cell phone coverage) transmit data back to a central server every 15 minutes; this data includes water level, water temperature, air temperature and dew point. For the remaining gauges, The Conservancy staff manually download data during site visits.

Participants have access to the raw data gathered from the gauges on their properties—and The Conservancy cannot share this data with others without permission from the landowner. The Conservancy also analyses the collective data of the entire gauge network to identify trends, determine opportunities for improving flows and inform strategies to balance the water needs of growers and fish. With permission from participating landowners, The Conservancy has used this collective information to educate the public and state water regulators about unique opportunities and needs in the Navarro watershed.

The placement of these gauges allows for real-time information about water levels and stream flow to be delivered to the landowners. As Smith described, “The data from these gauges is allowing The Nature Conservancy to determine where increasing local water storage will most benefit fish, and it’s empowering landowners to manage their water use with an eye to watershed health.”

For example: After seeing his stream gauge data, one landowner modified his pumping regime in order to avoid sudden drops in stream level that could impair fish; another expressed interest in securing a storage pond in order to avoid pumping altogether when flows are low.

“In other years, we had one gauge, and it was right at the end of the Navarro River,” Fay said. “Now we can know, from this point to this point there’s this much water. You can see exactly how much water you’re working with on your property, based on real-time data. Not just by standing at the banks.”

As with many other projects from The Nature Conservancy, the Navarro effort seeks to demonstrate that data is the fuel for better resource-management decisions. “From the beginning, we’ve been a science-based organization,” Smith said. “And we’ve found that, when creating solid approaches to balancing the needs of people and nature, it’s clear that data is the answer for improving things.”

The idea is to eventually create an easy-to-use web interface where vineyards and landowners in the Anderson Valley can log in and see, in real time, what is going on with stream flows. “We want to get to a point in the next couple years where landowners can use the information we’re collecting to collaboratively manage water and see how their management affects the watershed as a whole,” Smith said.

Water storage flexibility
The Nature Conservancy also hopes that this data will fuel regulatory changes that will be good not just for growers but also for wildlife. The Nature Conservancy is working with state agencies to help increase regulatory flexibility so that vineyard owners can more easily build adequate local water-storage infrastructure. These storage ponds would be filled during the rainy season and used for irrigation during the dry, hot months when fish need water instream the most. The Conservancy is also working to secure flexibility for landowners who already have ponds but can’t always fill them because their water permits prohibit capturing stream water after March 31—even though there are sometimes significant rain events in April or even May.

Smith said that growers told her, “If I could just enter summer with a full pond, it would really help.” So that’s what she and her team are working to help create. “We’re exploring how, through the state permitting process, folks might be allowed to divert water past March as long as our stream gauges show there is more than enough available to meet the needs of the fish.”

“Everyone has been interested in finding solutions, and they want to find them in a collaborative way. It’s very refreshing.” It’s also refreshing to the region’s winemakers, who would like to get more flexibility around strict water rights and permits. “We needed The Conservancy’s expertise to explain to state water decision-makers what we needed, and to do something about it,” Fay said.

“We’re really lucky someone cared as much about the valley and our wineries—as well as bringing back native fish—as we do,” Fay said. “Because ultimately, that’s what all of us in the Anderson Valley care about: just having a healthy water source.”

It’s a challenge trying to balance the water needs of wineries and agriculture with the needs of the natural world. But it’s a challenge Smith and her team are ready to tackle.

“Coho salmon are facing a multitude of challenges, and solving one piece of the puzzle will not be enough to save them. We can never lose sight of that,” Smith said. “But in terms of solving this one piece of the puzzle for coho, we definitely think we can have a thriving vineyard industry and enjoy our wine. And we can support that industry while also supporting the coho populations. Our research shows it is possible,” she said.

Finding ways for nature and people to thrive together is critical, especially during one of the worst droughts in history. “The incredible crisis we’re in has heightened people’s sense of urgency and willingness to innovate to find solutions,” Smith said.

Kate Getty is a surfer/farmer/freelance writer based in Portland, Ore. For more information about the stream gauge project, visit

Currently no comments posted for this article.