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Wine industry water grab? 

Will Parrish, ANDERSON VALLEY ADVERTISER

The “discussion draft” of the Russian River Irrigation bill has not been released publicly. So, as a public service, the AVA will offer a copy of the bill on its website.

California’s slow-mo adoption of groundwater regulations is prompting all sorts of legal maneuvers by the state’s irrigation elite, who are striving for the fewest restrictions on their pumps possible. In the Russian River watershed, from where I write this dispatch, arguably the irrigation elite’s elitist elites are the grape growers of northern Sonoma County.
Their lawyers are not resting.
State Sen. Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg) is quietly sponsoring legislation to create a new independent special district called the Russian River Irrigation District, which would be operated of, by, and for the growers and their affiliated wineries, tasting rooms, and event centers.
The district would encompass much of the Russian River watershed in northern Sonoma County, and possibly a small portion of southern Mendocino County. The legislation specifically names its purview as being the Alexander Valley, Knights Valley, Dry Creek Valley, and “the territory within the portion of the Russian River Valley American Viticultural Area” and “the portion of the Russian River Valley American Viticultural Area south of River Road and Mark West Creek Road.”
Senator McGuire (of “Marijauna Watershed Protection Act” fame) has yet to introduce the legislation in bill form. Rather, his staff has circulated a “discussion draft” of the proposed legislation to — and I’m intentionally using the in-fashion political jargon here — “interested parties.”
Reportedly, grape growers met on July 27th to discuss the bill and they are not unanimously in favor of it. They still need to iron out a lot of kinks. For that reason, McGuire (who is from Healdsburg, and thus to no small degree a political creature of the wine industry) has yet to bring the bill before the State Legislature.
The main function of irrigation districts generally is to allow agricultural water users the option of controlling their own water rights, rather than be subject to state administrative control or popular eleciton. They have the power to tax all the property in a designated area for the construction and maintenance of dams and canals. Water rights belong to the water district rather than to individual water users.
Read more at: Wine Industry Water Grab? | Anderson Valley Advertiser

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A solution for California's water woes

Will Parrish, EAST BAY EXPRESS
In a decision bursting with symbolism, the California State Water Resources Control Board recently announced its intention to draw down the main water supply reservoir for a half-million people to only 12 percent of capacity by September 30. Lake Folsom on the American River — the main water source for Roseville, Folsom, and other Sacramento suburbs — will plummet to 120,000 acre feet by that date, according to a forecast by the water board, which announced the plan at an unusually lively Sacramento workshop on June 24.
The artificial lake will therefore be only months away from turning into a dreaded “dead pool,” a state in which a reservoir becomes so low it cannot drain by gravity through the dam’s outlet. Such an outcome would leave area residents scrambling for water — if recent predictions of an El Niño weather pattern fizzle and rain fails to appear later in 2015. If that were to happen, then Folsom could be a harbinger for the rest of California.
Indeed, as the American West lurches through its fourth summer of an historic drought, numerous major reservoirs are at or near historic lows relative to the time of year. New Melones Reservoir on the Stanislaus River in Calaveras and Tuolumne counties, which was only 16 percent full as of last week, appears likely to meet the same fate as Folsom this year. A study by UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography in 2008, three years before the current drought began, warned that the nation’s largest reservoir, Nevada’s Lake Mead (which supplies much of Southern California), has a fifty-fifty chance of running dry by 2021.
State and federal water management officials have contended that the current state of emergency has come to pass due to a natural disaster beyond their control. Water board member Steven Moore has called the drought “our Hurricane Sandy.” In April, after Jerry Brown stood on a Sierra summit barren of snow and announced the state’s first-ever mandatory water restrictions, an official press release from the governor’s office asserted that for “more than two years, the state’s experts have been managing water resources to ensure that the state survives this drought and is better prepared for the next one.”
But according to critics, the opposite is true. One of the main reasons that California’s reservoirs have plummeted to nearly cataclysmic lows, they say, is that federal and state water managers sent enormous quantities of water in recent years to senior water rights holders, especially water districts that supply agribusinesses in the dry San Joaquin Valley. ”
Much the way Congress and federal regulators gave Wall Street a huge legal pass and billions in bailout money for crashing the US and global economies last decade, so does the State Water Resources Control Board coddle state and federal water projects and their thirsty contractors for managing their water supplies to the point that the systems on which they depend are themselves circling the drain,” said Tim Stroshane, a water policy analyst for the conservation advocacy group Restore the Delta.
Read more at: A Solution for California’s Water Woes | East Bay Express

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Rural residents question exemption of ag from water restrictions at Occidental meeting 

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A feisty crowd of west county residents peppered state regulators Monday night with questions about why new water conservation rules aimed at saving endangered coho salmon do not apply to vineyards.
The rules, which took effect Monday, apply to the owners of about 3,750 parcels that rely primarily on private wells in four watersheds, including the areas around Dutch Bill and Green Valley creeks in west county.
“It’s so obvious who’s sucking the water out of the ground,” shouted one man in an audience of about 100 residents, asserting that there are dozens of vineyards in the Green Valley watershed.

Another man said the rural water-conservation measures approved by the state Water Resources Control Board last month are “doomed to fail because the main culprits are not included.”

“We’re dealing with the low-hanging fruit here,” a woman called out, referring to prohibitions on watering lawns and washing vehicles with no limits on irrigation of commercial agriculture.

The meeting at Salmon Creek School near Occidental was the first of five public sessions scheduled by the water board after it officially adopted the emergency regulations on June 17.

State officials said the drought has reduced summer flows in four coho-rearing creeks — including Mark West Creek north of Santa Rosa and Mill Creek west of Healdsburg — by 90 percent or more from 2010 levels.

Read more at: Rural residents decry water restrictions at Occidental meeting | The Press Democrat

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Rural Sonoma County residents ordered to conserve water

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Rural Sonoma County residents are about to fall under state mandates to conserve water, largely through cutting back on outdoor irrigation, under an emergency measure aimed at protecting endangered coho salmon.
The water limits, including prohibitions on watering lawns and washing vehicles, initially will apply to the owners of about 3,750 parcels who rely primarily on private wells in the “critical areas” of four watersheds key to young coho salmon. The board has the option to expand the rules to all 13,000 parcels in the watersheds.
Adopted by the state Water Resources Control Board last month, the conservation measures are scheduled to take effect Monday amid concerns that the rules are flawed.
“Too little, too late,” said Grif Okie, whose property straddles Mark West Creek north of Santa Rosa.

The creek is “alarmingly low” and conserving water “is a good idea, of course,” Okie said. But after living on the creek for 15 years and watching vineyard plantings in the watershed, he contends the county, state and federal governments are “all derelict in having any coherent plan for saving the fish.”

State officials have conceded that the two-part order was quickly conceived and enacted in response to an urgent need to boost the flow in Mark West Creek, Green Valley and Dutch Bill creeks in west Sonoma County and Mill Creek west of Healdsburg.

Critics have faulted the conservation plan for exempting irrigation of “agricultural commodities,” including vineyards.

“It’s a good start,” said Larry Hanson of Forestville, who lives near Green Valley Creek and has watched it shrink prior to the beginning of the current four-year drought, a trend he attributes to vineyard expansion. The state order “missed the biggest target” by exempting vineyards, he said.

Read more at: Rural Sonoma County residents ordered to conserve water | The Press Democrat

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Troubled Delta system Is California’s water battleground

Erica Goode, THE NEW YORK TIMES
Fighting over water is a tradition in California, but nowhere are the lines of dispute more sharply drawn than here in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a 720,000-acre network of islands and canals that is the hub of the state’s water system.
Giant pumps pull in water flowing to the delta from the mountainous north of the state, where the majority of precipitation falls, and send it to farms, towns and cities in the Central Valley and Southern California, where the demand for water is greatest.

For decades, the shortcomings of this water transportation system, among the most ambitious and complex ever constructed, have been a source of conflict and complaint.

But in the fourth year of a profound drought, the delta has become a central battle zone, pitting north against south, farmers against environmental groups, farmers against one another and many local residents against California’s governor, Jerry Brown, whose plan to fix the delta’s problems upsets them almost as much as the drought itself.

“In major battles, crossroads are always fought over,” said Steve Mello, who farms in the north delta. “And this is the crossroads for most of the water in the north state that they are seeking to export south.”

Water pumped from the delta, the largest estuary on the West Coast, accounts for only about 15 percent of the total water from aboveground sources that is used in California.

But the delta pumps help feed more than three million acres of farmland, much of it in the San Joaquin Valley, the agricultural heartland of the state. The estuary’s water is also home to hundreds of wildlife species, including fish — like the winter-run Chinook salmon and the delta smelt — that are listed as endangered and federally protected.

Casualties in this tug of war are counted in fallowed fields and the loss of species. And as the drought has intensified, so has debate over how the delta’s limited supply of water should be apportioned. Farmers in the Central Valley call it a “man-made drought,” complaining that water needed for crops is going to fish instead. This month, an environmental group filed suit against the state and federal governments, claiming that endangered species were being sacrificed to agricultural interests.

Read more at: Troubled Delta System Is California’s Water Battleground – The New York Times

Posted on Categories Agriculture/Food System, Climate Change & Energy, Sustainable Living, Water, WildlifeTags , , , , , , , , Leave a comment on Op-Ed: It’s time to protect the Delta

Op-Ed: It’s time to protect the Delta

Jon Rosenfield & Gary Bobker, THE SACRAMENTO BEE
California is at high risk of permanently losing key species and habitats in the West Coast’s largest estuary, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and San Francisco Bay.
Some describe these grave outcomes as “ecosystem collapse,” others prefer the less descriptive term “ecosystem change.” Whatever words we choose, the decline of the Bay-Delta is part of the global loss of biological diversity described in Elizabeth Kolbert’s Pulitzer Prize winning book “The Sixth Extinction” – a tragedy that’s happening not just in coral reefs and rainforests but right in our backyard.
Focusing on semantics rather than biology threatens to overshadow important points:
▪  Several species native to the Delta could soon disappear;
▪  These and other permanent and negative outcomes are directly related to human activities – in particular, the diversion of more than 50 percent of the estuary’s inflow; and
▪  We can still protect this ecosystem and the values it provides to us, if we act decisively.
Six of the estuary’s unique populations of fish are listed as endangered and others are declining rapidly. In 2014, endangered winter-run and commercially valuable fall-run Chinook salmon were devastated by failure to provide cold water required by eggs incubating below Central Valley dams and the minimum freshwater flows that young salmon need as they migrate to the ocean. Cuts to freshwater flows also devastated species such as Delta smelt, longfin smelt and starry flounder that are at or near record low population levels. Yet the same failures to enforce minimum flow and temperature protections are being repeated this year, pushing native species ever closer to extinction.
When species that were once the estuary’s most abundant are on the verge of disappearing, everything that depends on them suffers, too – from commercial fishing communities along the California and Oregon coasts; to the tourism, recreation and seafood businesses of Northern California; to Orca whales in the Gulf of the Farallones.
“Ecosystem collapse” refers to a sudden loss of key ecological functions, processes, species or habitats. Those who apply that term to the Delta are simply using shorthand to describe consequences we should avoid. Quibbling over word choice risks shifting attention away from the frightening reality on the ground.
For example, an alternative description like “ecosystem change” is misleading. Characterizing extinctions and other major, potentially permanent, negative transformations as merely “change” is like an EMT describing the victim of a hit-and-run by saying “this patient’s health is changing” – true, but not very informative.
Let’s move past the semantics and focus on achieving outcomes that reflect our values – the same values that have repeatedly led Americans to adopt laws to protect our clean water, clean air, endangered species, vibrant fisheries, wildlands and wild rivers for the benefit of future generations.
Continue reading “Op-Ed: It’s time to protect the Delta”

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State regulators approve water restrictions to aid Sonoma County salmon streams

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
With fish perishing in drought-diminished Sonoma County streams, state regulators said Wednesday they felt pressed to approve sweeping new limits on water use affecting thousands of rural landowners.
But farm representatives attending the State Water Resources Control Board meeting said part of the measure was regulatory overreach, while some west county residents said it didn’t go far enough. Others said the whole thing was rushed.
Water board members said they appreciated some of the complaints, but voted unanimously to establish the new restrictions affecting outdoor water use, and a requirement that all landowners submit reports starting next month that detail their use of stream and well water.

“This is a very extreme situation. There are already fish dying in the streams,” Corinne Gray, a state Department of Fish and Wildlife official, told the five-member State Water Resources Control Board. All coho salmon and steelhead trout need is a “trickle of water” between pools on the four creeks to survive the summer, she said.

The emergency regulation will apply, starting July 3, to about 10,000 landowners on 130 square miles across four watersheds: Dutch Bill and Green Valley creeks in the west county, Mark West Creek north of Santa Rosa and Mill Creek west of Healdsburg. About 13,000 properties will be covered by the rules.

Residents and businesses, including wineries, will be prohibited from using water drawn from creeks or wells for sprinkling lawns or washing cars, while irrigation of other landscaping, such as trees and plants, will be limited as it is in many cities.

Irrigation for commercial agriculture is exempt from the water conservation rules, an issue that prompted harsh criticism from several county residents attending the meeting and was acknowledged by Felicia Marcus, the water board’s chairwoman.

Read more at: State regulators approve water restrictions to aid Sonoma | The Press Democrat

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There's a better way for California to water its farms

Danielle Venton, WIRED
California’s Central Valley farmers have a problem. Agriculture accounts for about 80 percent of the state’s water consumption, and in the midst of a historic drought, it is the largest potential source of water savings. Farmers want to be good stewards of the land by helping save water—it is, after all, what sustains them. But there’s a limit to what they can eke out of the soil with the water governor Jerry Brown has given them to work with.
Or maybe there isn’t. New irrigation techniques have made it possible to increase yields with less water than farmers once thought they needed. It’s even possible to farm essentially without water—growing produce by using the water and fertilizing nutrients already in the soil.
In Templeton, California, Mary Morwood Hart is using dry farming on her Grenache, Mourvedre, and olive trees, carefully cultivating the soil on her 20 acres so it can sustain growth without water. Over the past century, US agriculture has pushed itself to produce higher and higher yields by carefully engineering its plots: building larger farms with more advanced mechanics and increasing reliance on fertilizers, weedkillers, and pesticides. That’s brought more food to market. But it’s also depleted the soil—those steps tend to kill the microbes that build organic material and make it sponge-like.
Hart and other dry farmers think they can find a solution in the dirt itself. When soil is left to its own devices, it becomes rich in organic material. It loses less water to runoff and evaporation, and food can grow with little or no irrigation.Increasing soil organic content in an acre of farmland by just 1 percent can save up to 27,000 gallons of water.
That’s especially true of grapes. Hart and her husband, who run the farm together, believe dry farming prolongs the vine’s life, and their method isn’t exactly devoid of moisture: The calcareous clay soils in Templeton, she says, hold a lot of water. “It creates a situation where the tap roots have to dig deep down into the soil to find moisture and it brings about character and a complexity of flavor,” says Hart. “When you do irrigate a vine, the roots tend to grow very close to the surface, because they’re just waiting there for their drops of water.”
The downsides are what you might expect: Dry-farming reduces the weight of the grapes, so the farm’s overall output is lower than average (typical output is four to six tons per acre, while Hart gets a measly 1.3 tons). But without irrigation, her plots are less expensive to tend to and easier to grow on hillsides. And old vines and the smaller grapes that grow on them are prized for their flavor—which she can charge a premium for.
At Molino Creek Farms on the Central Coast, grower Joe Curry raises dry-farmed tomatoes on 136 acres. He and the other farm founders chose dry farming because their land has very little access to water. Once his tomatoes are taken out of the greenhouse and planted in rows, they receive no additional irrigation. That’s only possible, he says, because the farm takes care of the soil. Prior to planting they mow cover crops, leaving them on the ground to decompose. The nutrients re-enter the soil, used to support the next season of growth.
The effect on water usage is dramatic. According to the National Resource Conservation Service, an arm of the US Department of Agriculture, increasing soil organic content in an acre of farmland by just 1 percent can save up to 27,000 gallons of water. (Other estimates are less hefty, but still impressive.)
But waterless agriculture isn’t the answer for everyone. Tomatoes, grapes and vegetables are relatively high-value crops—not all farmers can afford sacrificing their high yields for higher quality. And certain crops like lettuce would taste terribly bitter if dry farmed. So other farmers have turned to other methods to conserve water.
Read more at: There’s a Better Way for California to Water Its Farms | WIRED

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Wells running dry as groundwater recedes in Sonoma

Christian Kallen, SONOMA INDEX-TRIBUNE

May 5, 2015: A public hearing on groundwater in the Sonoma Valley, and the formation of a Groundwater Sustainability Agency, will be held at the VOMWD board meeting Room, 19039 Bay St., El Verano. The board meeting begins at 6:30 p.m., and the hearing will start at about 6:45 p.m.

If praying for more rain isn’t working, and conserving usage isn’t sufficient to provide enough water for Sonoma, maybe it’s time to look down – underground. There, however, the picture gets murkier.“
We can see an open storage reservoir, like Lake Sonoma or Lake Mendocino, how much water is in there, and how much the decline is,” said Dan Muelrath. “Groundwater is much trickier. You can’t see it.”

Larbre, (of Larbre Well Drilling) who’s been keeping records since the ‘90s, said that since that time, the water level has declined about 85 feet, most of it in the past two years.

Muelrath is the executive director of the Valley of the Moon Water District, which is holding a public hearing on the groundwater situation in Sonoma Valley next Tuesday, May 5, at the regular VOMWD board meeting in El Verano.
But well-driller Ray Larbre says he and other drillers “know what’s going on underground – but nobody asks us.” Larbre has lived all his life on the same property on Arnold Drive, carrying on his father’s well-drilling business, Larbre Well Drilling and Pump, founded in 1932.“
Everybody’s turning to groundwater to solve their irrigation problems, for landscape and around their houses,” said Larbre. “All they’re doing now by drilling these wells for residential use is creating more draw from the strata and less water for everybody else.”
The 71-year-old well-driller has seen wet years and dry, but nothing like this current drought. Recalling the drought years of 1976-78, he said, “That drought was severe but this one is more severe and long lasting – it’s really changed the landscape as far as I’m concerned.”
Concerns over the increased use of groundwater, and its depletion, prompted the state to pass the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act last year. One of its key components is the creation of Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSA), tasked with assessing conditions in local groundwater basins and adopting locally based sustainability plans.
Next week’s public hearing will discuss the formation of a local GSA to manage the resource. The VOMWD will open the floor to a public hearing on the question of which of the affected agencies should take the lead in forming the local GSA – Valley of the Moon, City of Sonoma, the Sonoma County Water Agency or the County itself.
Read more via: Wells running dry as groundwater recedes | Sonoma Index-Tribune | Sonoma News, Entertainment, Sports, Real Estate, Events, Photos, Sonoma, CA

Posted on Categories Agriculture/Food System, Sustainable Living, WaterTags , , , Leave a comment on Op-Ed: Big Wine fails to dry farm during California’s relentless drought

Op-Ed: Big Wine fails to dry farm during California’s relentless drought

 Shepherd Bliss, DISSIDENT VOICE
California Governor Jerry Brown spent this year’s Earth Day at the elite Iron Horse Winery in the Sebastopol countryside. It was a great photo opportunity and promotion for the winery. Iron Horse is known for donations to President Bill Clinton and other politicians, with whom it has cozy relationships, and from whom it receives favors, such as these visits. I operate a small berry and apple farm nearby and teach sustainable agriculture, mainly to college students.
“Hope Amid Drought” headlined the April 20 pro-wine industry daily Press Democrat’s (PD) report on this winery event of some 200 people. “Brown says innovation, efficiency will get state through water shortage,” the article notes. Iron Horse Vineyards CEO Joy Sterling “said the 300-acre winery…epitomized the environmental stewardship honored on Earth Day.” She spoke about their “love of the land.”
But wait. What about water usage, the theme of Gov. Brown’s talk? The previous day the PD published the commentary “Why We Don’t Dry Farm Grapes.” Its author? Iron Horse’s Laurence Sterling.It’s hypocritical for Gov. Brown to mandate that the rest of us reduce water use by 25%, except for his friends in Big Ag and Big Wine. It’s called “green washing.” Or as we used to say, bluntly, on our Iowa family farms when we went out to clean the cute piglets, “hogwash.”
Five days later the PD published a letter that nailed both Gov. Brown and Mr. Sterling for this contradiction. Under the headline “Time for Sustainable Ag,” it was written by Sebastopol neighbor Donna Diehl. She reports, “Four of our neighbors had to drill new wells since the first of the year.” Nearby wells can go dry when Big Wine drills as deep as 1000 feet into the ground. Excessive pumping from shallow wells can also lead to neighbor’s wells pumping air, reports a Lake County wine maker.“
Let’s not wait until our groundwater is depleted to address the issue of the impact of viticulture on its depletion,” Ms. Diehl concludes.
Read more at: Big Wine Fails to Dry Farm During California’s Relentless Drought | Dissident Voice