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Uncharted waters for the Russian River this summer

Russian Riverkeeper, RUSSIANRIVERKEEPER.ORG

This past Sunday, while out on the River, we observed the clearest waters we can remember seeing in over 50 years. With 25+ feet of visibility, we could see the bottom of some of the deepest pools—from Geyserville to Healdsburg at Diggers Bend and Warnecke Ranch—it was incredible! Normally, we would be lucky to have 4-5 ft of visibility.

Sadly, this is not going to last for long. The incredible clarity right now is due to an increased amount of groundwater seepage which brings cold, clean water into the river system. These cold, clean waters are in stark contrast to Lake Mendocino releases or tributary flows that often have more sediment and higher temperatures this time of year. Unfortunately, as temperatures go up and water use increases for vineyards and lawns, this moment of beautiful clarity will soon end.

As we paddled downriver we saw many lower Alexander Valley vineyard pumps already on, signaling the start of the irrigation season. This means that we will soon be losing about 50% of flow between Ukiah and Healdsburg to irrigation. Two weeks ago we observed a semi-truck unloading pallets of new sod in Healdsburg so that even more water-sucking lawns could be planted. As a city that already uses more water per person than all others in the watershed, this seems counterintuitive to the current drought situation we find ourselves in. Seems like not much has changed as far as water-use patterns go.
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Sonoma County supervisors eye changes to rules governing vineyard development

Tyler Silvy, NORTH BAY BUSINESS JOURNAL

Changes sought by grape growers to Sonoma County’s ordinance governing vineyard development are set to come before the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, with proposed revisions that county leaders say will streamline permitting and encourage more environmentally friendly farming practices.

The changes are meant to update the county’s Vineyard Erosion and Sediment Control Ordinance, established in 2000. The rules have long been a source of friction between the county’s dominant industry and environmental interests.

But the changes before the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, supporters say, are a common-sense approach to adapting land use that will be better for the environment.

“In my mind, not only does this not weaken (the ordinance), but this increases it,” said Supervsior James Gore. “I want to see landowners and producers changing practices to less-intensive systems. And if we can streamline this process, and reduce the costs of permitting to do that, that is the ultimate win-win.”

The revisions call for greater leeway and eased rules for growers who are seeking to replant vineyards, including incentives for those who use less invasive methods. The changes also would adjust permitting costs and timelines.

The changes came about through a series of meetings over the past two years between grape growers and Supervisors Gore and Lynda Hopkins, who together represent the Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Westside Road and the Alexander Valley.

The original ordinance stemmed from a public push to prevent damaging erosion, tree removal and water pollution problems linked to vineyard operations, which now cover more than 60,000 acres in Sonoma County. In one case, a major landslide in 1998 caused Dry Creek to run red with sediment-laden runoff. The rules have been revised at least three times since the initial ordinance.

The latest proposal emerged from discontent within the wine industry about the work of an an outside contractor the county uses to oversee the vineyard erosion rules.
Continue reading “Sonoma County supervisors eye changes to rules governing vineyard development”

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Sorax, the Ghost of Salmon Past, speaks at the Board of Supervisors in 2012 on the passing of the VESCO ordinance

I am a ghost of Coho Salmons past, once born and raised in Dutch Bill Creek below Occidental. My last reported sighting there was in the 1960’s. I speak for all salmon and wildlife species not able to attend your meetings.


Do you realize that as public servants and supposed stewards of the Russian River that it is the only river in California to have three listed Salmonid species: Coho, Chinook and Steelhead? That is three distinct species of unique, ancient animals. Shall I remind you that humans, all 6 billion of you, compromise only one distinct species, which at this point ought to be renamed “Homo consumous.”

We as salmon, as recently in our evolution as 150 years ago, used to live in peace with the humans of this land, and we co-evolved with the harbor seals and sea lions and our natal forested creeks. The abundance of our families was so great that your early pioneering families remarked “that we were so numerous” they could “walk on our backs.” This all changed with your arrival. In the last 100 years, or during the time of those 3rd, 4th & 5th generation families who so proudly and loudly exclaim in your newspapers to be stewards of the land, it was they who cleared this land of over 95% of its old growth forests, 95% of its riparian forests, drained 95% of its wetlands.

I ask you where are my friends the Grizzly, the Elk, the Antelope, the Marbled Murrelet? My Coho ancestors used to number 500,000 in California rivers and now our runs number less than 5,000, to as low as 1,000 individuals! We are nearing the brink of functional extinction simultaneously with such gloating of stewardship.

It is critical for all of you to recognize that, compared to the past, this land is actually in a highly degraded state. You all need to own up to the fact that your ancestors are indisputably responsible for the overwhelming genocide of the Pomo and Miwok peoples, the silvacide of the great forests, the soilacide (as your activities have eroded and compacted the once rich fertility) and the salmonicide (as I stand before you at the tail end of our existence). If you have the vision and courage, this can change, you can turn this around if you act in earnest now.

This erosion ordinance you pass today with its especially inadequate riparian setbacks is a feeble first step and leaves me with fear for my children, but a critical move in the right direction if you decide to take more steps and begin walking towards a future vision of ecological watershed integrity.

Remember, I am a fish of the forest. Without trees, my breeding streams fill with sediment, dry up due to lack of groundwater recharge and what water remains becomes lethally hot for my young. Every aspect of your development paradigm must be questioned and reevaluated with restorative criteria. You must question your roads, parking lots, housing, industrial, agricultural, logging and mining practices. We the salmon are dying from the cumulative impacts of your collective inabilities to think like a watershed. If we go extinct and fade from memory, so will you!

In closing, since my spawning gravels are so embedded with silt from the denuded, compacted hillsides, I want to offer each of you, as servants of the public trust, an egg of mine that hopefully will help your thoughts to incubate on taking the recovery of Totem Salmon seriously and birthing a new vision of a shared watershed commons for the sake of all our relations.

Thank you,

The Sorax, aka Brock Dolman, Director of the Water Institute at the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center.

Source: https://oaec.org/our-work/projects-and-partnerships/water-institute/

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Wine moguls destroy land and pay small fines as cost of business, say activists

Alastair Bland, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO

After California wine industry mogul Hugh Reimers illegally destroyed at least 140 acres of forest, meadow and stream in part to make way for new vineyards sometime last winter, according to a report from state investigators, state officials ordered the Krasilsa Pacific Farms manager to repair and mitigate the damage where possible. Sonoma County officials also suggested a $131,060 fine.

But for environmental activists watching the investigation, fines and restoration attempts aren’t going to cut it; they want Reimers — an experienced captain of industry whom they say knew better — to face a criminal prosecution, which could lead to a jail sentence.

“We want him to be an example of what you can’t do here,” says Anna Ransome, founder of a small organization called Friends of Atascadero Wetlands. In August, the group sent a letter to Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravich, asking that she prosecute Reimers.

“If winemakers can figure into their budget paying fines and doing minimal restoration work, then what’s to stop the next guy from doing the same thing?” Ransome says.

The D.A.’s office did not return requests for comment. Multiple efforts to reach Reimers for comment were unsuccessful. On Nov. 13, a sign posted outside of an address listed for him that appears to be a residence read “Media Keep Out.”

The Sonoma County Winegrowers, an industry organization that promotes sustainability, also declined to comment.

Ransome’s concerns have been echoed by other environmental and community activists in Northern California who decry a pattern of winemakers violating environmental laws, paying relatively meager fines for their actions, and eventually proceeding with their projects.

For example, high-society winemaker Paul Hobbs now grows grapes on at least one small Sonoma County parcel that he cleared of trees in 2011 without proper permits. Though his actions on several locations where he removed trees caused community uproar, officials fined Hobbs $100,000 and allowed him to carry on with his business. Paul Hobbs Winery is listed by the Sonoma County Winegrowers website as certified sustainable.

Read more at https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2019/11/18/774859696/wine-moguls-destroy-land-and-pay-small-fines-as-cost-of-business-say-activists

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As bears move into Sonoma County, wildlife advocates seek to keep them safe, wild

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Aaron Bennett’s thinking goes something like this: Black bears had long since claimed territory in the Anderson Valley lands where his parents established Navarro Vineyards decades ago, so when the family planted pinot noir at high elevation in the mid-1990s, it was the humans who would have to learn to share.

That’s why he, his parents and sister so willingly tolerate the nighttime visitors to their vineyard, even supplying a playful Winnie the Pooh soundtrack to a compilation video they’ve posted online documenting hungry bears roaming through the grapevines in recent months.

“I grew up on the ranch. I see the bears just as cohabitants of the land,” said Bennett, 41.

The bears eat a ton or two of grapes each season — perhaps as much as $10,000 worth. It’s a sizable hit, but “it’s not the bear’s fault that we put pinot noir on the hills,” Bennett aid.

But even he acknowledged his view of the situation is not one that’s universally shared.

Data from California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife reflects a sometimes adverse human-bear relationship in Mendocino County and other rural North Coast counties, where the bear population is particularly dense.

But that could change. And with the increased presence of bears around the wild edges of Sonoma County in recent years has come a budding movement to prepare for their expansion south, in a bid to keep them wild and safe.

The newly formed North Bay Bear Collaborative is the product of conversations going back several years, when early signs began to indicate that what had been mostly transient visitors were beginning to settle in year-round.

The aim is to help humans adjust to their new neighbors and head off any conflicts.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/10188029-181/as-bears-move-into-sonoma

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Work to continue on second half of Dry Creek restoration

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Overlooking water that was swiftly running through a broad channel that was mostly a patch of thick brush and trees until last year, local and federal officials and others on Monday marked the halfway point in a 13-year, $81 million fish habitat restoration project along Dry Creek.

In the past seven years, Sonoma Water and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have completed about 3 of the 6 miles of streambed they intend to rehabilitate and enhance to give endangered salmonid species that call the creek home a better chance to survive.

“This is, I think, one of the gems of our region and really a highlight project,” Army Corps Brigadier General Kimberly Colloton told those assembled.

As they toasted the conclusion of the final phase in the first round of projects at the edge of a Ferrari-Carano vineyard in Healdsburg, the two key partners approved an agreement committing to continued work on the effort.

But they have little choice. A 2008 biological opinion issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service required the two agencies to restore 6 out of 14 miles of Dry Creek. The work had to be done if they were to continue operating the Warm Springs Dam at Lake Sonoma for flood control and water deliveries to 600,000 consumers throughout Sonoma and northern Marin counties.

The order came in response to findings that water releases made since completion of the dam in 1984 were often at too high a velocity for juvenile fish to rest or feed adequately. Moreover, such fast-moving water further scoured and straightened out the streambed, exacerbating the problem.

The work they’ve been doing since is designed to spread the creek out, creating side- and cross-channels and dead-ended alcoves that slow the water down to a stop. They’ve added giant root wads, boulders, tree stumps and other woody debris to create places for small fish to hide and rest, and put in willows and other plants on the banks for shade.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9516210-181/work-to-continue-on-second

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Napa County wineries, environmentalists clash over proposed land-use rules

KPIX

A land-use fight is brewing in Napa County pitting environmental activists on one side and winery owners on the other.

The county is considering new environmental rules that opponents say could make some properties impossible to build on. If approved, they would apply to every property of an acre or more in unincorporated parts of Napa County.

Wednesday’s Planning Commission meeting was packed with people concerned about the proposed county ordinance to increase protection of trees and watershed throughout the county. Climate protection activists say it’s needed because winemakers are now expanding up into the hills and removing native trees to do it.

“The valley floor is largely planted out,” said Jim Wilson, a member of an activist group called Napa Climate Now. “A lot of times, a forest is on the land that they want to develop and removing that forest is just a matter of getting down to business.”

The ordinance would ban private property development on any land with a slope of more than 30 degrees. It would also prohibit development within 35 to 65 feet of creeks and require keeping 70 percent of trees on a parcel. If property owners do remove trees, they would have to set aside three times the area of those trees’ canopy as undeveloped, open space.

Read more at https://sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/2019/02/21/napa-county-wineries-environmentalists-proposed-land-use-rules/

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Crops of the past

Janet Balicki Weber, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Harvest season is underway in Sonoma County and for those living in Wine Country that means grapes.

But let’s not forget the multitude of other crops that have jockeyed for the title of top crop through the years. Hops, apples and prunes have all taken turns dominating the economy at one time.

And there were other crops, too: walnuts, cherries and berries were once part of a diverse agricultural landscape that in recent years has become more grape-centric.

Agriculture has always been important to Sonoma County. In the 1920s, Sonoma County was ranked eighth in the country in agricultural production. In 1931, it was 10th, with all this coming from around 7,000 farms, 5,100 of which were 50 acres or smaller.

The small family farm usually grew multiple crops; producers often grew three or four to back up their primary yield. When prices dipped for one, they were prepared.

Of course, there also are animal products. Although crops like hops have nearly disappeared from the county, poultry and dairy continue to be big producers from Cloverdale to Petaluma.

View photos at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8756663-181/historic-photos-of-harvest-in?sba=AAS

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New groundwater laws may be coming to California’s premier wine-growing region

Matt Weiser, PACIFIC STANDARD

California’s premier wine-growing region has been identified for more regulation under the state’s new groundwater law, likely resulting in new fees and limits on water extraction for the industry.

The state Department of Water Resources declared in May that 14 groundwater basins across the state face threats to groundwater, and thus should be reprioritized under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Four of these are in Napa and Sonoma county wine-growing valleys.

The aquifers in question are the Sonoma Lowlands sub-basin in Napa and Solano counties, the Alexander Valley basin and Healdsburg area sub-basin in Sonoma County and the Wilson Grove Highlands basin in Sonoma and Marin counties. Each is a vital source of irrigation water for grape growing.

The department proposes to change these basins from “low” to “medium” priority under the law after reviewing new data on groundwater conditions and land use in each region. Previously, their low ranking meant these basins got a pass from complying with SGMA. If finalized in November, medium priority will require each basin to form a groundwater sustainability agency within two years, and complete a sustainability plan within five years.

Other groundwater basins in Napa and Sonoma counties are already subject to these requirements. The new additions mean virtually all of California’s top wine region now confronts costly groundwater regulations for the first time. Grape growing is the primary consumer of groundwater in each basin.

Read more at https://psmag.com/environment/groundwater-laws-are-coming-to-wine-country

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Measure C sparks debate over future of Napa County vineyards

Bill Swindell, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Randy Dunn was worried about the future as he walked around his vineyards Thursday morning in the Howell Mountain wine region of Napa County.

Dunn has been farming the land since 1978, when he and his wife, Lori, bought a 5-acre parcel of cabernet sauvignon vines tucked around Douglas firs more than 1,400 feet above sea level. It was a time well before “cult cab” became part of the vernacular of Napa Valley and some prized wines sold for more than $1,000 a bottle.

Things have changed in Napa, Dunn contends. There is very little room left on the valley floor, he says, pushing rich investors and wine companies into the hills to carve out the remaining land left to plant vineyards in the country’s most prized wine region.

“They don’t know a thing about wines. They hire a project manager. They hire a vineyard consultant,” Dunn grumbled about some of his neighbors. “There is still a lot left to preserve. There is an incredible amount of hillside planting. Most people don’t see it because it’s tucked away somewhere. … Enough is enough.”

Napa County residents will determine if “enough is enough” on June 5 when they vote on Measure C. The initiative would limit vineyard development on hills and mountains to provide greater protection to watersheds and oak woodlands, the latter of which covered more than 167,000 acres, or about 33 percent of the county’s overall area before last year’s wildfires.

Read more at http://www.pressdemocrat.com/business/8282347-181/measure-c-sparks-debate-over