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Lytton Rancheria development outside Windsor stokes big land-use dispute

A tribe’s plan to build housing for its members on the outskirts of Windsor while also potentially adding a 200-room hotel and a large winery has generated one of the biggest land-use disputes in the young town’s history.
The 270-member Lytton Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians wants to establish a home base, something it has not had since the tribe’s 50-acre rancheria north of Healdsburg was illegally terminated by the federal government in 1958. In the past dozen years, it has used revenues from its East Bay casino to buy up an ever-larger swath of land southwest of Windsor, off Windsor River, Starr and Eastside roads.
That’s where the tribe could build more than 360 homes and a community center on just over 500 acres it hopes to take into federal trust through legislation carried by Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael. It would add the hotel and a 200,000-case winery if given approval under a future federal environmental review.
A separate deal negotiated with Sonoma County would prohibit a new casino on the land while allowing for the prospect of the tribe’s more than doubling the amount of property it holds in trust — to roughly 1,300 acres — making an even bigger part of Windsor’s outskirts exempt from local land-use restrictions.
Lytton tribal officials say their intent is to create a community for themselves and expand their economic ventures beyond gambling.
Creation of a homeland will allow the tribe to continue to govern itself and “to provide for tribal generations to come,” Tribal Chair Marjie Mejia testified in a congressional subcommittee hearing in June.
But project opponents have decried the increasing scope and potential impact of the development plans, which they note would require the destruction of 1,500 trees. The additional commercial development could deplete local water supplies and bring a huge influx of people and cars to the rural area, opponents say.
Read more at: Lytton Rancheria development outside Windsor stokes big land-use | The Press Democrat

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Joseph Wagner shifts focus from Meiomi to Dairyman winery project

Fresh off selling his Meiomi brand for $315 million to Constellation Brands Inc., Joe Wagner is planning his next steps as the 33-year-old wine entrepreneur has emerged as one of the of biggest players to watch in the North Coast wine industry.
At the top of his list is a desire to complete the controversial Dairyman winery project near Sebastopol, which has run into opposition from community activists. Critics contend the plan, which would turn the 68-acre property into a large-scale winery, will snarl traffic along the Highway 12 corridor, degrade their quality of life and use up scarce water during a drought.
“We’re having this (conducted) as a very thorough process that doesn’t leave any stone unturned. We feel pretty confident. I like the project, still,” Wagner said Wednesday after speaking at a conference sponsored by the industry publication Wines & Vines. “People see it for the positives. Obviously, some people think it’s not the right place and the right size or anything.”
Wagner has agreed to submit the project — which calls for a facility that can produce up to 500,000 cases of wine and 250,000 gallons of distilled spirits annually, an administration building and hospitality center — for a full environmental impact report to assuage local concerns.
The biggest hurdle, Wagner contends, will be finding a way for vehicles to enter the proposed winery from Highway 12 through an access road that would cross the popular Joe Rodota Trail, used by bicyclists and runners. A tunnel might be one option, he said.
Read more at: Joseph Wagner shifts focus from Meiomi to Dairyman | The Press Democrat

Posted on Categories Agriculture/Food System, Land UseTags , , , , , Leave a comment on Op Ed: Is Big Wine the Big Oil of Sonoma County?

Op Ed: Is Big Wine the Big Oil of Sonoma County?

The Sonoma County wine industry is starting to look like big oil. Its leaders crow about preserving the environment when they have created an unmitigated environmental disaster. They recently received $374,000 of taxpayer money to implement “sustainability” in Sonoma County. A good thought. Suspicions arise when the first thing they did with their taxpayer grant was buy a full page ad and label themselves “sustainable.”
The history of the local wine industry is “Paint it green and buy the supervisors.” The industry is just too big to be told what to do by mere citizens or politicians. It just throws some more money at redefining the problem until it expires.
You be the judge. Sustainability is a stool with three legs: the environment, the economy and social justice. The wine industry will cut water use, cut chemicals and do lots of advertising telling us what a good job it did. It will come with a sack full of facts and figures to show it is in the right, but it will not change, if the past is to be judge.
The wine industry will not join the chorus in support of raising minimum wages, an essential part of sustainability. They want cheap workers. The industry will not provide housing. They never have beyond a few “floor show” units. They fail on the social justice aspect and must add a housing component and higher wage if they want to be sustainability advocates.
Are you up for it industry?
Environmentally, grape farming is predicated on killing all organisms and keeping them that way — dead. Poison nematodes, poison weeds, poison birds, poison critters. They clear-cut zones around the vineyard. The topsoil leaves Sonoma County vineyards to our waterways by the tons. Why no sheet mulching?
They continue to plant in riparian and wetland areas. Go to Mill Station Road near Atascadero Creek to see this sustainable approach. And, support for limiting wineries in “mapped water scarce areas” to protect neighbors, not a chance.
Read more at: Close to Home: Is Big Wine the Big | The Press Democrat

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Rep. Jared Huffman introduces bill to take land into trust for Lytton Rancheria

Rep. Jared Huffman introduced a bill this week to take land near Windsor into federal trust for housing and other purposes — but not a casino — as part of the Lytton Rancheria reservation.
The bill, introduced Thursday, would allow the Pomo tribe to return to a communal homeland about 10 miles from their original reservation north of Healdsburg. No gaming will be conducted on the lands to be taken into trust by the federal government, according to Huffman’s office.
In an interview Friday, he said the legislation will give the tribe, the county, and the town of Windsor a measure of certainty over what can be built and how the housing impacts will be offset. He said it also provides a guarantee that a casino will not be developed on the property, an outcome that would not be certain if the tribe sought the alternate route of getting the land into trust through the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
“An Act of Congress has advantages. It gives everyone control over the outcome,” Huffman said.
The Lytton Rancheria lost its homeland north of Healdsburg in 1958 when it was terminated by the federal government. That termination was later found to be unlawful, and in 1991 the tribe was restored to federally recognized status.
A decade later, through legislation sponsored by former East Bay Congressman George Miller, the Lyttons took over an old cardroom and began operating the San Pablo Casino, generating profits that allowed the tribe to buy up land around Windsor for an intended homeland for its 270 members.
The Lyttons want to build 147 homes on 124 acres south of Windsor River Road, along with a community center, roundhouse and retreat.
Initial strong opposition from the county and Windsor officials, along with skepticism that the tribe might be pursuing another casino, eventually softened with a consensus that the tribe was likely to get approval from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Read more at: Rep. Jared Huffman introduces bill to take land | The Press Democrat

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California’s thirsty wine-grapes

In the San Joaquin Valley heartland town of Livingston, located along Highway 99 between Turlock and Merced, the United States’ most lucrative wine corporation, E&J Gallo, operates the world’s largest winery: a place where serried ranks of massive, 200,000-gallon tanks tower over the surrounding countryside, in a compound ringed by security fences.
Were California its own nation, its wine industry would be the world’s fourth largest in terms of revenue. Roughly 570,000 acres in the state are under the vine, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture (which chairman, incidentally, was president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers for 13 years). And about half of that acreage is located in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, which operate in conjunction with the area’s enormous industrial wineries.
Much of this grape-based alcohol production is enabled by California’s unparalleled water infrastructure, which transmits water from north to south, thereby turning the arid lands that supply Gallo’s oil refinery-like facility into a bountiful — and profitable — farming region. On the other side of the Coast Ranges, and further north, resides another thirsty portion where the wine industry places inordinate demand on its watersheds.
As the American wine market moved increasingly upscale in the 1990s, Sonoma County emerged as an epicenter of the “premium grape rush” due to its wide variety of favorable microclimates and soils, as well as comparatively low land prices vis-a-vis Napa County to the east. In keeping with the prevailing market trend toward high-end varietal wines, a new division of the Gallo empire — Gallo of Sonoma — amassed a collection of sprawling estates in the verdant hills ranging north to south from Cloverdale to Sonoma.
The Gallo clan aimed not only to remake their company’s image; they were intent on remaking Sonoma County’s physical terrain in that image. Throughout much of the 1990s, Gallo’s fleet of D-9 excavators rumbled across the company’s vast tracts, steel mandibles akimbo, cleaving oaks and pines and Doug firs from their root systems. Gallo owns about 6,000 acres in Sonoma County in all.
Read more at: California’s Thirsty Wine-Grapes | Anderson Valley Advertiser

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Sonoma County forms advisory panel for crafting winery regulations

Sonoma County planning officials have named high-powered winery executives, leading environmentalists and several rural residents to a 21-member panel formed to give input on the highly charged issue of winery development in the county.
The group includes officials from Jackson Family Wines and the Sonoma County Farm Bureau as well as neighborhood representatives concerned about development encroaching on the county’s rural character.
Between next month and March 2016, the panel is charged with crafting proposed regulations for the unincorporated area that could set new standards for events at wineries, including how many should be allowed per year and what type — from weddings to wine pairing dinners and industry events such as barrel tasting weekend.
The advisory process, set up to inform county planners and the Board of Supervisors, is launching amid an escalating debate over winery development in the county, focused especially on new and expanding sites that seek to double as event centers. The outcome, including potential tighter limits and more strict enforcement for wineries, is seen as having high stakes for the region’s signature industry.
“This is very important to the industry, but the impacts are also important to neighborhood activists,” said Tennis Wick, director of the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department, which oversees planning and building permits, including those for new or expanded wineries. “We’re going to be focused on what type of events should be allowed, and potential over-concentration of events in some areas.”
Rural residents have voiced increased concern about an onslaught of traffic and noise they say is associated with a growing number of special gatherings at wineries situated on backcountry roads. Neighbors also are worried about the strain on the region’s natural resources, including groundwater.
Winery owners and industry representatives say their projects have limited impacts, and they point to measures they have taken to reduce traffic and noise in their neighborhoods. They also defend their use of events to promote their businesses, saying such gatherings are crucial to boost direct sales.
Both sides acknowledge that the long-simmering debate about the issue has reached a boiling point.
Read more via: Sonoma County forms advisory panel for crafting winery | The Press Democrat

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Wells running dry as groundwater recedes in Sonoma


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

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State seeks voluntary cut in stream diversions from Sonoma County landowners to protect coho

State regulators are asking about 650 landowners along Sonoma County’s four major coho salmon spawning streams to voluntarily reduce water diversions to protect the drought-imperiled fish species, which is hanging on after nearly going extinct in the Russian River two decades ago.
Letters issued jointly by the State Water Resources Control Board and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife were mailed this week to the landowners — primarily rural residents as well as some grape growers — along Dutch Bill and Green Valley creeks in the west county, Mark West Creek north of Santa Rosa and the Mill Creek system west of Healdsburg.
Survival of the coho is “at a precarious junction” in the fourth year of “the worst drought in recorded California history,” read the letter, signed by Scott Wilson, a regional manager with the wildlife agency, and Barbara Evoy, deputy director of the water board’s division of water rights.
“Every week is critical for these endangered salmon,” the letter stated, outlining steps — including use of alternative water sources, curbing lawn irrigation, installing low-flow household devices such as toilets and washing machines and releasing spare reservoir water — to maintain stream flows from May 1 through November or later.
“The fish need a minimum amount of water flow to live and these steps and cooperation are necessary for them to succeed,” the letter said.
The move amounts to the agencies’ first drought-related action this year on local stream use. It seeks voluntary commitments from 654 landowners to cut back on water drawn from coho breeding streams feeding into the Russian River. But the letter also warns that if voluntary actions are insufficient, the state could halt water diversions, a step known as curtailment that was imposed last year on the upper Russian River and other dwindling waterways on the North Coast and in the Central Valley.
Read more via State seeks voluntary cut in stream diversions from | The Press Democrat.

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Santa Rosa comes out ahead of revised water cuts

Santa Rosa residents have already satisfied the state’s water conservation requirement and simply “need to keep it up” as the weather warms and the urge to water lawns resumes, a city official said Monday.
“We’re asking our customers to keep implementing the water-saving habits they have picked up,” said Jennifer Burke, deputy director of water and engineering services.
Santa Rosa was the only one of 11 North Bay cities and water agencies that came out ahead of the revised conservation standards issued Saturday by the State Water Board, which is implementing Gov. Jerry Brown’s demand for a statewide 25 percent cut in water consumption this year.
State regulators have focused on watering lawns and landscaping, which consumes about 1 million acre feet of water a year, enough to fill Lake Sonoma, the North Bay’s largest reservoir, four times.
Two weeks ago, the water board announced draft conservation targets for more than 400 urban water suppliers, giving Santa Rosa a 20 percent goal, just 2 percent higher than the 18 percent water savings achieved since 2013. The goals were revised after water providers complained that draft ones failed to give enough weight to previous conservation efforts. New tiers were established based on usage data from the months of July, August and September instead of just September. The revised standards cut the city’s target to 16 percent, 2 percent lower than the current conservation rate.
Burke said it was “good to see the state has taken into account the conservation efforts of previous years.”
Rohnert Park, Windsor and the Sweetwater Springs Water District also qualified for the 16 percent target, replacing the 20 percent standard but still larger than their water savings to date: 11 percent for Rohnert Park and 15 percent for Windsor and Sweetwater Springs, which serves the lower Russian River area.
Sonoma and Healdsburg took hits from the revised standards, bumped up to 28 percent from 25 percent.
Sonoma faces the largest challenge, a 13 percent gap between the revised target and the 15 percent conservation it has achieved since 2013. Healdsburg, credited with 17 percent water savings to date, faces an 11 percent gap.
Read more via Santa Rosa comes out ahead of revised water | The Press Democrat.

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Here's the real problem with almonds

Tom Philpott and Julia Lurie, MOTHER JONES
Almonds: crunchy, delicious, and…the center of a nefarious plot to suck California dry? They certainly have used up a lot of ink lately—partly inspired by our reporting over the past year. California’s drought-stricken Central Valley churns out 80 percent of the globe’s almonds, and since each nut takes a gallon of water to produce, they account for close to 10 percent of the state’s annual agricultural water use—or more than what the entire population of Los Angeles and San Francisco use in a year.
As Grist’s Nathanael Johnson put it, almonds have become a scapegoat of sorts—"the poster-nut for human wastefulness in California’s drought." Or, as Alissa Walker put it in Gizmodo, "You know, ALMONDS, THE DEVIL’S NUT." It’s not surprising that the almond backlash has inspired a backlash of its own. California agriculture is vast and complex, and its water woes can’t hang entirely on any one commodity, not even one as charismatic as the devil’s nut almond.
And as many have pointed out, almonds have a lot going for them—they’re nutritious, they taste good, and they’re hugely profitable for California. In 2014, almonds brought in a whopping $11 billion to the state’s economy. Plus, other foods—namely, animal products—use a whole lot more water per ounce than almonds.
So almonds must be worth all the water they require, right? Not so fast. Before you jump to any conclusions, consider the following five facts:
1. Most of our almonds end up overseas. Almonds are the second-thirstiest crop in California—behind alfalfa, a superfood of sorts for cows that sucks up 15 percent of the state’s irrigation water. Gizmodo’s Walker—along with many others—wants to shift the focus from almonds to the ubiquitous feed crop, wondering, "Why are we using more and more of our water to grow hay?" Especially since alfalfa is a relatively low-value crop—about a quarter of the per acre value of almonds—and about a fifth of it is exported.
It should be noted, though, that we export far more almonds than alfalfa: About two-thirds of California’s almond and pistachio crops are sent overseas—a de facto export of California’s overtapped water resources.
READ MORE VIA Here's the Real Problem With Almonds | Mother Jones.