Ambling through a forest on his rural Mark West area property, Ray Krauss bent over to pinch a fir tree sprout and pull it from the rain-damp ground. If the tiny green seedling grew much larger, Krauss would have to nip it with pruning shears, and were it to become a substantial tree he would fell it with a chainsaw.
But the 76-year-old retiree, who wears a bright red bicycle cap to keep his bald head warm, is considered a patron saint — not a plunderer — of the 63 acres of critical watershed land he has stewarded for nearly half a century.
“It’s been an utter privilege to live here all these years,” Krauss said. “It’s such a special location.”
Were the land and the wildlife on it able to speak, they might thank him for his dedication.
Sonoma Land Trust, which has protected more than 50,000 acres of land for future generations, embraced the early Christmas gift it got last week from Krauss and his wife, Barbara Shumsky. The couple donated a conservation easement, prohibiting development and guaranteeing the land will remain largely unchanged in perpetuity, foregoing the potential for substantial profit.
“We have a special affection for the Mark West watershed,” Ariel Patashnik, the Santa Rosa nonprofit’s land acquisition program manager, said while visiting the property on a foggy afternoon.
As California lurches through its fourth year of an unprecedented drought, it is no surprise that long-simmering Russian River water conflicts have come to the forefront. At the center of this struggle are salmon and trout, whose epic life journeys play out on a scale akin to Homer’s Odysseus.
In July, roughly 1,000 rural Sonoma County residents overflowed classrooms and small meeting chambers at five informational sessions convened by the State Water Resources Control Board. It would be hard to exaggerate many attendees’ outrage. At one meeting, two men got in a fistfight over whether to be “respectful” to the state and federal officials on hand.
The immediate source of their frustration is a drought-related “emergency order” in portions of four Russian River tributaries: Mill Creek, Mark West Creek, Green Valley Creek and Dutch Bill Creek. Its stated aim is to protect endangered coho salmon and threatened steelhead trout. Among other things, the 270-day regulation forbids the watering of lawns. It places limits on car washing and watering residential gardens. It does not, however, restrict water use of the main contemporary cause of these watersheds’ decline: the wine industry.
“The State Water Resources Control Board is regulating lawns? I challenge you to find ornamental lawns in the Dutch Bill, Green Valley and Atascadero Creek watersheds,” said Occidental resident Ann Maurice in a statement to the water board, summing up many residents’ sentiments. “It is not grass that is causing the problem. It is irrigated vineyards.”
In what many see as a response to public pressure, the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, an industry trade group, announced last week that 68 of the 130 vineyards in the four watersheds have committed to a voluntary 25 percent reduction in water use relative to 2013 levels. According to commission president Karissa Kruse, these 68 properties include about 2,000 acres of land.
Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore, whose district encompasses more Russian River stream miles than that of any other county supervisor, has been strongly involved in developing the county’s response to the water board regulations and was the only supervisor to attend any of the state’s so-called community meetings.
“I applaud the winegrowers for stepping up,” Gore says in an interview. “I think they saw the writing on the wall. They knew they weren’t going to continue to be exempt from this sort of regulation for long, and there are also winegrowers already doing good things in those watersheds who wanted to tell their stories.”
Initially, state and federal officials who crafted the regulation said they preferred cutting off “superfluous” uses as a first step. “Our target is not irrigation that provides an economic benefit,” says State Water Resources Control Board member Dorene D’Adamo of Stanislaus. D’Adamo has been the five-member board’s point person for developing the regulations and was appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown as its “agricultural representative.
“Many residents argue that there is no way of monitoring the vineyards’ compliance with the voluntary cutback because their water use has never been metered. Moreover, these residents’ passionate response to the regulation did not emerge in a vacuum. Rather, it tapped a deep well of resentment regarding the long-standing preferential treatment they say state, county and even federal officials have accorded the powerful, multibillion dollar regional wine industry.
As longtime Mark West Creek area resident Laura Waldbaum notes, her voice sharpening into an insistent tone, “The problem in Mark West Creek did not start with the drought.”
Read much more at: Coho vs. Pinot | Features | North Bay Bohemian
Geoffrey Mohan, LOS ANGELES TIMES
These days, the redwood-shaded creek by Laura and Ray Waldbaum’s house is a bone-dry path of rocks and gravel, its occasional stagnant pools a somber reminder of the salmon that once thrived there.
Fewer than 500 endangered coho now wend their way from a network of such creeks to the Russian River and out to sea, and the Chinook population is barely two-thirds of what it ought to be, according to wildlife officials.
The Waldbaums and many other rural Sonoma County residents blame wine: about 60,000 acres of vineyards, 439 wineries and 221 event centers that have permission to host 2,299 dinners, concerts, weddings and other events for as many as 32,176 people, largely under the guise of agricultural promotion.
Seven years ago, so many vineyards switched on their sprinklers to protect their vines from a spring cold snap that water levels in creeks feeding the Russian River dropped several feet in a matter of hours, suffocating 25,000 fish in two counties.
So when state water regulators this summer announced emergency drought restrictions to protect salmon in some of those same watersheds, residents were shocked to find that agricultural properties faced no water cutbacks.
Simmering resentment at the rapid growth of vineyards and wineries turned to fury against an industry that has a $13.4-billion impact on the Sonoma County economy. And it appears to have spoiled the party for wineries and growers who have embarked on a highly publicized effort to be the nation’s first wine region to be certified as completely “sustainable” by 2019.
That agricultural exemption is coming to an end, even if the war is not. The State Water Resources Control Board on Wednesday began sending “informational orders” requiring growers to provide details about where they get their water, how much they use and how they apply it. Growers still won’t have to match residents’ water use cutbacks, although some have voluntarily done so.
The two-week rollout of the regulations, which also cover wells, is being closely watched by the state’s $46-billion agriculture industry, which will face similar groundwater regulation over the next few years.
Read more at: Sonoma County residents’ battle with wineries is about more than water – LA Times
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.
Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Thousands of landowners along Sonoma County’s four major coho salmon spawning streams would be required to report their use of water from both surface sources and wells under proposed new state regulations intended to protect the highly endangered fish species.
The sweeping proposal, announced this week, is aimed at about 13,000 landowners in 113 square miles of the watersheds around four Russian River tributaries: Dutch Bill and Green Valley creeks in the west county, Mark West Creek north of Santa Rosa and Mill Creek west of Healdsburg.
The mandatory water reporting would be done via an electronic form that landowners would fill out online, said Andrew Hughan, a spokesman for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, which called for the action to protect coho salmon.
The move represents a significant escalation of what had been a voluntary water conservation request of landowners along the same streams earlier this spring. But water regulators noted that state wildlife officials determined last month that those measures fell far short in protecting dry-season flows for salmon in what is now the state’s fourth year of drought.
“Swift action is necessary to protect their limited habitat and avoid extinction given the continuing dry conditions,” Barbara Evoy, a deputy director with the State Water Resources Control Board, wrote in a letter announcing the state’s proposal.
Some details, including the specific watershed boundary lines, will be determined by the water board, which is scheduled to consider the proposed regulation at its June 17 meeting.
State Water Resources Control Board, MAVEN’S NOTEBOOK
The State Water Resources Control Board has posted a proposed emergency regulation to provide a minimum amount of water in four Russian River tributaries to protect Central California Coast coho salmon and steelhead. The emergency regulation would enhance water conservation efforts in the affected region to provide the minimum amount of water needed to protect the salmon and steelhead from low oxygen levels, high water temperatures and stranded pools in the wake of the continuing severe drought conditions.
The proposed regulations would affect about 13,000 properties in the 113 square miles encompassed by the watersheds of the four tributaries: Dutch Bill, Green Valley, Mark West and Mill creeks.
The proposed emergency regulation will be considered by the State Water Board on June 17 at its June 16-17 meeting, and must also receive approval of the state Office of Administrative Law. If approved, it would become effective on or about June 29. The proposed regulation, the text of the letter to property owners and a fact sheet on the proposal can be found here. “
Source: This just in … Proposed Emergency Regulation in Four Russian River Tributary WatershedsMAVEN’S NOTEBOOK | MAVEN’S NOTEBOOK
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
Will Parrish, THE ANDERSON VALLEY ADVERTISER
On April 21st, officials with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the State Water Resources Control Board sent joint letters to property owners in four of the Russian River’s largest tributaries imploring them to conserve water on behalf of a federally-listed endangered species: Coho salmon. Its subject header was “Urgent Voluntary Drought Initiative Request to Maintain Stream Flow for Coho Salmon in Reaches of Green Valley, Dutch Bill, Mark West, and Mill Creeks, Tributaries to the Russian River, Sonoma County.”
When forester and hydrologist Jim Doerksen returned from vacation last week and read the letter, he was – as he terms it – “insulted.” Doerksen’s property features nearly a mile of Mark West Creek frontage. As Doerksen is intimately aware, having owned his property since 1967, the creek was once known for its thrashing, silvery surges of salmon and trout. But the first of the four horsemen of fisheries collapse – habitat degradation, dams, weakening of the genetic pool through the use of hatcheries, and over-fishing – have taken an enormous toll.
The cause of the habitat loss in Mark West Creek is summed up on a sign strung to a tree on the northwestern edge of Doerksen’s property, located along St. Helena Rd.: “Vineyards SUCK! Water.” “In the meetings I have had with you and [fellow Water Board staff member] Tom Howard, I have consistently emphasized that the State Water Board has always shirked its responsibility when it comes to protecting salmonids in Mark West Creek as required by the ‘Public Trust Doctrine’ and AB 2121,” Doerksen wrote in response, in a letter addressed to State Water Board Deputy Director of Water Rights Barbara Evoy. “In the Water Rights Complaint [RPL:262 (49-15-07)] filed by Grif Okie and myself, backed up by 5,000 pages of documentation, we emphasize that Mark West Creek was being dewatered directly due to actions taken by the State Water Resources Control Board and the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, and because of the total inaction of the Calif. Department of Fish and Wildlife.”
Some history is in order. In 1967, Jim Doerksen purchased 500 acres of ranch land on St. Helena Rd., about seven miles northeast of Santa Rosa, and meticulously removed fruit orchards, exotic annual grasses, and tangles of brush where old vineyards had been, replacing them with redwood trees and Doug-firs. The land had consisted of a redwood- and fir-dominant forest prior to the arrival of Euroamericans.
The land’s response has been nearly miraculous. By the early-2000s, visitors from the American Forestry Foundation informed Doerksen that more timber per acre was growing on his land than anywhere they know of in North America. And, as Doerksen fastidiously nursed the land back to health, the watershed’s abundance also increased.
Read much more at: Too Many Straws In the Russian | Anderson Valley Advertiser