Turning water into wine

Will Parrish, EAST BAY EXPRESS

The unregulated growth of California’s wine industry in the state’s coastal regions is depleting groundwater supplies and devastating rivers and fisheries.

Along the border of Sonoma and Napa counties, roughly seven miles northeast of Santa Rosa, hydrologist and forester Jim Doerksen took me to the southeastern end of his house, where he has scrawled annual rainfall totals on his laundry room wall for more than thirty years. It was an early-spring morning, and fog had draped the redwoods and Doug firs in a ghostly gray on the north-facing slope above Doerksen’s home.
In the 2005–06 rain year, Doerksen’s gauge recorded 98 inches of precipitation. Yet, the water level that year in Mark West Creek — a tributary of the Russian River, historically known for its thrashing, silvery surges of salmon and trout — had declined by more than half.
The realization that his beloved creek was drying up, even in a wet year, remains clearly etched in Doerksen’s mind a decade later. As a former staff hydrologist for Santa Clara County, Doerksen is also keenly aware of what happened. He explained that the depletion of an underground aquifer, which feeds the creek, caused it to run dry.
“A fractured-bedrock aquifer lies beneath this part of the Mayacamas Mountain range, dispensing water through pores … in the sub-surface rock,” he said. “When the groundwater level drops below these pores, the aquifer ceases to dispense — you end up with a dry creek.”
On the northwestern edge of Doerksen’s property, a sign strung to a tree describes this problem even more succinctly and identifies the culprit: “Vineyards SUCK! Water.”
Historically, much of California’s wine industry had been centered in the Central Valley. But by the latter part of the 20th century, the notion that the distinct character of a particular vineyard is expressed through the wines produced from it had become a popular notion among American wine drinkers. Grape growers responded by touting coastal ridgetop vineyards as boasting California’s best terroir. And so corduroy-like rows of grapes marched up hillsides in California’s northern and central coastal areas.
The growth of hillside vineyards was a free-for-all. “When it comes to agriculture, there’s no statewide regulation that prevents oak woodland and chaparral fragmentation and habitat loss,” explained Adina Merenlender, a UC Berkeley Cooperative Extension specialist in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management who has studied the conversion of woodlands to vineyards in Sonoma County. “It’s discouraging.”
In upper Mark West Creek, the conversion to vineyards started with the owner of a multimillion-dollar dentistry consulting business in Marin County — named Pride — that installed eighty acres of grapes on a ridgetop where oaks had previously stood. The next person to plant a ridgetop vineyard in the area was Fred Fisher, an heir to the General Motors fortune. The coup de grace occurred when Henry Cornell, an investment banker from Goldman Sachs in New York City, purchased 120 acres and clear-cut the forests on his property to make way for a vineyard and winery.
Read more at: Turning Water into Wine | East Bay Express

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