A Geyserville property owner who launched a medical cannabis farm has agreed to pay $245,000 in fines and penalties for what Sonoma County prosecutors said was improper water diversion, unpermitted grading and site work that harmed streams in the Russian River watershed.
Property owner Darryl Crawford, a Napa-based investor with experience building wine cellars, said most of the issues on the sprawling 330-acre Geysers Road property stemmed from old roads, water systems and other features built decades ago by a prior owner.
But state Fish and Wildlife officials said that unauthorized work that Crawford had done on the property, including attempts to stop sediment from flowing into streams, created additional problems. Prosecutors said also that the cultivation site was graded without a permit.
Prosecutors sued Crawford and his companies Black Mountain Developers and Cold Creek Group in an effort to get them to comply with environmental regulations and acquire the needed permits to improve the site’s roads and water systems, Deputy District Attorney Ann Gallagher White said.
“The penalties were high because the conduct was egregious and lasted for a long time,” Gallagher White said.
Planned logging near a Healdsburg stream that provides some of the last refuge in the region for wild coho salmon has been put on hold after a court decision overturned a timber harvest plan for the 160-acre site.
Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Rene Chouteau determined last month that the plan approved by Cal Fire last fall inadequately analyzed potential impacts for endangered and threatened fish species in Felta Creek and the greater Russian River watershed into which it drains.
Chouteau also agreed with neighbors’ claim that property owner Ken Bareilles failed to sufficiently address the effects of logging trucks on narrow roadways and five rural bridges they would travel to haul lumber from the remote parcel.
The resolution is unlikely to be the final chapter in the dispute, with both sides anticipating ongoing legal battles.
“The land isn’t safe until it has a conservation easement on it or a harvest plan geared for limited, smaller-scale logging, said Lucy Kotter, a one-time forester and a spokeswoman for Friends of Felta Creek, which was formed to block the plan.
Bareilles, a Eureka attorney, said Wednesday he still hopes he can start logging in the spring and intended to revise and resubmit his timber harvest plan for approval in the meantime.
John Sammon, LEGAL NEWSLINE
Two Sonoma County vintners received a judgment in favor of their proposed wine making operation when an appeal by the Sierra Club was turned back by the state’s 1st Appellate District Court of Appeals.
The court found in favor of the defendants Ronald and Ernest Ohlson, operators of the Ohlson Ranch, who applied for a permit to turn grazing land on their property into a grape vineyard. The Agricultural Commissioner of Sonoma County (commissioner) issued the permit after making a determination the issuance was a “ministerial” act, and therefore exempt from California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) standards.
The commissioner’s decision was challenged by the Sierra Club, Friends of Gualala River and the Center for Biological Diversity, who asked for a writ of mandate, a court order to an agency or court to follow the law by correcting a previous action (issuing the permit).
Before the year 2000, grape growers in Sonoma County could plant vineyards without government review or permission.. Since then, new directives have been added, including submitting plans to address erosion controls, proper grading, drainage and other safeguards.
The Ohlsons filed an application in 2013 to turn 108 acres out of 132 acres of range land into a vineyard. The property included wetlands and marshy depressions but no trees or streams. Erosion was to be controlled by the use of anchoring grass, mulch, filter strips and cover crops.
Read more at: Calif. court rules against appeal filed by Sierra Club, others over vineyard permit | Legal Newsline
J.D. Morris, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
After living along the Laguna de Santa Rosa for decades, Joe Aggio and his family have grown accustomed to having their land swamped with water, as has been the case this year, the waterway swollen to its greatest extent in more than a decade.
But the floodplain around their dairy farm also has become much more of a nuisance over the years.
Aggio, 32, said the wetland around his farm between Occidental Road and Guerneville Road used to be manageable and clean, flooding in the winter before draining off so his family could grow crops to feed their cows. But the waterway has become increasingly plugged with sediment, invasive Ludwigia plants, garbage and other discarded items like shopping carts and couches, he said.
“It no longer flows. It no longer drains. It’s just a stagnant mess,” Aggio said. “We’ve lost crops because of it. We haven’t gotten crops in because of it … It’s become increasingly difficult to farm the land.”
So Aggio’s hopes were raised recently when Sonoma County Water Agency officials secured a grant to move forward with plans that could eventually help alleviate the challenges faced by his farm and other landowners along the 22-mile waterway.
With funds from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Water Agency and environmental groups are embarking on a massive planning effort to revitalize the watershed that stretches from Cotati north to Windsor and takes in rural areas east and west of Santa Rosa.
The watershed, which includes Mark West and Santa Rosa creeks and many other smaller streams and wetlands, has been altered significantly over generations by agricultural and urban development.
One result of its transformation is the Laguna now fills with more sediment than it once did, at times hampering its ability to drain floodwaters into the Russian River.
“If this happens over a very long period of time — we’re talking hundreds of years — that eventually will get to a point where it could back up drainage back into Santa Rosa, Cotati and Rohnert Park,” said Mike Thompson, assistant general manager of the county Water Agency. “This is well beyond our lifetimes, but if it keeps filling up like that, the storage and flood protection of the Laguna that naturally occurs is being taken away.”
Armed with $517,000 in state grant funds, the Water Agency and other groups expect to spend the next three years developing a comprehensive restoration plan for the watershed. Project partners include the San Francisco Estuary Institute and the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation.
Read more at: Sonoma County to spearhead plan to restore Laguna de Santa Rosa watershed | The Press Democrat
Will Parrish, NORTH BAY BOHEMIAN
As a long-time resident of the Elk River basin, which drains the redwood-studded hills southeast of Eureka, Jesse Noell lives in fear of the rain. During storms of even moderate intensity, the Elk River often rises above its banks and dumps torrents of mud and sand across Noell and his neighbors’ properties. The churning surges of foamy brown water have ruined domestic water supplies, inundated vehicles, buried farmland and spilled into homes.
It first happened to Noell and his wife, Stephanie, in 2002. As the flood approached, he remained inside his home to wedge bricks and rocks beneath their furniture, and pile pictures, books and other prized possessions atop cabinets and counters. The water level was at his thighs; his body spasmed in the winter cold. Across the street, two firefighters in a raft paddled furiously against the current, carrying his neighbors—military veterans in their 60s, who were at risk of drowning—to higher ground.
After crouching and shivering atop the kitchen counter through the night, Noell was finally able to wade through the floodwater to higher ground the next morning. But the home’s sheetrock, floors, heating equipment, water tanks, floor joints, girders and septic system were destroyed. This experience wasn’t an act of nature; it was manmade.
“California has a systematic and deliberate policy to flood our homes and properties for the sake of corporate profit,” Noell says.
CAUSE AND EFFECT
The cause of the flooding is simple: logging. Since the 1980s, timber companies have logged thousands of acres of redwood trees and Douglas firs, and constructed a spider web–like network of roads to haul them away, which has caused massive erosion of the region’s geologically unstable hillsides.The deep channels and pools of the Elk River’s middle reaches have become choked with a sludge of erosion and debris six to eight feet high. Each storm—such as those that have roiled California’s coastal rivers this past week—forces the rushing water to spread out laterally, bleeding onto residents’ lands and damaging homes, vehicles, domestic water supplies, cropland and fences, while also causing suffering that corporate and government balance sheets can’t measure.
“The Elk River watershed is California’s biggest logging sacrifice area,” says Felice Pace, a longtime environmental activist who founded the Klamath Forest Alliance in northernmost California.
For roughly 20 years, the North Coast division of the State Water Resources Control Board, the agency in charge of monitoring water quality and hazards in the area, has deliberated on how to address the Elk River’s severe impairment. But they have failed to take bold action, largely because of opposition from politically well-connected timber companies and the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), the state agency that regulates commercial logging.
Read more at: Downstream | Features | North Bay Bohemian
Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Replacing three culverts on his 28-acre Sonoma Valley hillside vineyard won’t boost the yield or increase the price of his merlot, sauvignon blanc and zinfandel grapes, John MacLeod said.
“It’s hard for me as a farmer to spend money fixing this,” he said.
But with a grant from the Santa Rosa-based Sonoma Resource Conservation District footing 75 percent of a $26,000 conservation project to reduce erosion on his land, MacLeod is quick to acknowledge the nonfinancial benefit.
“It makes us better stewards of the land,” he said, standing amid the 20,000 vines planted since MacLeod’s family bought the ranch along Sonoma Creek in 1974.
MacLeod Family Vineyards is one of four Sonoma Valley vineyards that has qualified for a total of $250,000 in grants funded by the Coastal Conservancy aimed at improving water quality in Sonoma Creek. The other three are Jack London Vineyard, Wildcat Mountain Vineyard and Santo Giordano Vineyard.
The local resource district has an additional $663,850 in grant funds authorized by the State Water Resources Control Board available to vineyards in the 170-square-mile Sonoma Creek watershed that extends roughly from Kenwood to San Pablo Bay.
The watershed is a “high priority” for remedial projects because Sonoma Creek, which flows 33 miles from its headwaters in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park to the bay, is designated by the state and federal government as impaired by excess sediment, said Valerie Minton, program director at the Sonoma RCD.
Sediment washed into Sonoma Creek, an important stream for steelhead trout, settles in gravel beds, potentially suffocating eggs and filling in pools where juvenile fish must spend the summer, she said.
Read more at: Sonoma Creek watershed conservation grants ease vineyard erosion | The Press Democrat
Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A prominent Sonoma County vineyard manager has agreed to pay $50,000 in penalties and other costs arising from a civil complaint related to a wintertime landslide on a replanting job outside Healdsburg.
Ulises Valdez, whose family business farms more than 1,000 acres, and Cloverdale engineer Kurt Kelder both were fined under a settlement announced this week for violations that officials say resulted in a stream of soil running into drainage for Dry Creek, a Russian River tributary that carries much of the North Bay’s drinking water and provides important fish and wildlife habitat.
Kelder is to pay $24,500, the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office said.
Kelder’s lawyer, James DeMartini, said his client agreed to the settlement without admitting fault, and said that while Kelder designed an erosion control plan for the property, it was Valdez who was responsible for installing it and he did not complete the job.
Read more at: Sonoma County vineyard manager fined for landslide near | The Press Democrat
The lower Gualala River has a wide meandering floodplain rich in wetlands, mature productive riparian redwood forests and highly diverse riparian habitats supporting many special-status plant, fish, and wildlife species. “Flood prone” redwood forests are supposed to be protected by avoidance of logging disturbances under special salmonid protection rules under the Forest Practices Act.
Despite the special protected status of floodplain redwood forests, Gualala Redwood Timber LLC (GRT; formerly Gualala Redwoods Inc., purchased in 2015 by Redwood Empire, owned by the Roger Burch family) proposes in the new “Dogwood” timber harvest plan (THP) to log 320 acres along 5 miles of the lower Gualala River’s redwood floodplain forest, taking 90 to 100 year old redwoods almost to the edge of Gualala Point Regional Park, and adjacent to the river’s sensitive estuary. Gualala Point Regional Park is one of the only public recreation areas in the entire watershed. The “Dogwood” THP, however, concluded with that the logging would have no effect on recreation, but with no analysis of the potential impacts of next-door logging of “Unit 1” on the regional park, and offered no mitigation.
To add to the impacts of logging hundreds of acres of floodplain redwood forest, the “Dogwood” and adjacent “Apple” THPs also propose to guzzle an incredible 25,000 gallons per day of Gualala River water during the dry season (April to November) over the 5 year timber harvest permit period. Not only does this conflict with Forest Protection Act “Anadromous Salmonid Protection” rules requiring avoidance of water drafting in forested “flood prone areas”, but the THP’s incredible determination that it would have “no effect” on flows was based on an outdated 2010 hydrology report (prepared before the current historic drought) with no consideration of the drought impacts on Gualala River’s deficient minimum summer flows, and Gualala’s municipal water supply. In addition, no analysis of the THP’s major water diversion during drought on listed salmonids was prepared. Yet the responsible agencies and affected downstream public water users have raised no red flags about the massive diversion of river water during the drought.
Aggressive logging plans previously proposed by Gualala Redwoods Inc. (GRI) have either been denied permits, or have been forced to withdraw them due to strenuous objections by resource agencies over impacts to endangered fish and wildlife species of the river and its wide riparian zone. One of the last failed efforts to log the floodplain was the GRI “Iris” timber harvest plan of 2004.
Read much more at: Massive floodplain logging plan for lower Gualala River threatens wetlands, rare plants & endangered wildlife – Friends of Gualala River
Angela Hart, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Sonoma County officials are bolstering their efforts to reduce pollutants and sediment that flow into the county’s rivers and streams during rain and storm surges with a $991,000 federal grant awarded this week.
Initiatives supported by the Environmental Protection Agency grant are aimed at improving water quality in streams and rivers in southern Sonoma County, critical habitat for imperiled fish species and other wildlife. Local efforts over the next four years will focus on combating urban and agricultural runoff. The runoff includes sediment and disease-causing pathogens that enter the creeks and tributaries of the Sonoma Creek and Petaluma River watersheds.
“This is a substantial problem,” said Tennis Wick, director of the county’s Permit and Resource Management District, which is administering the grant. “These are two environmentally important watersheds, and they don’t get as much attention (as the Russian River watershed).”
Under the grant, county planning, transportation and parks officials will work with state and federal environmental officials to more aggressively monitor and curtail pollution and sediment intrusion that can degrade sensitive habitat. Other plans include reinforcing river banks with plants to control erosion; building runoff-trapping features, such as planter strips, in new developments; and working with nonprofit environmental groups to educate the public about the environmental harms of pollution and sediment intrusion.
via Sonoma County gets grant to improve Petaluma River, | The Press Democrat.