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Drinking Our Rivers Dry

The latest in California’s North Coast wine oligarchy’s long series of legislative coups de grace occurred on December 14.  In a 5-0 vote, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors rubber-stamped new regulations on frost protection in the Russian River water basin, now in its death throes after having been continuously ravaged by several generations of extractive enterprise.

In recent decades, the once-simple act of protecting new bud growth on grape vines from frigid temperatures has become tantamount to a war on rivers.  The predominantly corporate alcohol farmers who wield executive authority over the North Coast’s land and politics almost universally combat frost damage via systems of overhead sprinklers that sprawl out across each row of grapes, dowsing them with a continuous coat of water on spring nights where local temperatures drop into the 20s.

Due to the sheer volume of water this advanced industrial system of frost management requires, the growers opt not to draw their water from wells – which would be harmful enough to the level of the water table – but instead pump straight from streams, creek, and rivers.  According to an estimate by David Koball of Fetzer Vineyards of Mendocino County, a subsidiary of the multi-billion dollar multi-national alcohol conglomerate Brown-Forman, a 20-acre vineyard requires 1,000 gallons per minute for frost protection.  There are more than 3,000 of these 20-acre swaths of wine-grapes in the Russian River basin alone (60,000 acres).  In other words, roughly three million gallons of water per minute is drawn from this single river basin.  The water is drawn for hours at a time, on as many as thirty separate occasions per year.

The frost protection period usually spans more than two months, from the time grapes come out of hibernation on around March 15, until the last frost date of late-spring: exactly when young fish, or “fry”, emerge from their eggs.   At this stage in their life cycle, the fish are especially susceptible to stranding, so they take refuge in cobble substrates.  In the Russian River Basin, local residents have long observed dead fry stranded in the days immediately following so-called “frost events,” as well as the older fish, known as “smolts.”

Sonoma County’s new ordinance is designed to keep the power to regulate local water use squarely in the hands of those who are most responsible for the Russian River’s current plight: vineyard operators.  A new non-profit organization called the Russian River Water Conservation Council, wholly composed of area grape growers, would oversee the frost protection program.

Sebastopol organic farmer Shepherd Bliss, a psychology professor at Sonoma State University and long-time critic of industrial viticulture’s local economic dominance, has rightly equated this state of affairs with a fox regulating chicken production in a henhouse.

In an ostensible effort to monitor the amount of water siphoning occurring for frost protection, as many as 100 stream flow gauges will be placed in the Russian River and its feeder streams.  Few if any of these gauges, however, would provide live data – that is, data that would actually prove useful in limiting damage to the river.  Instead, the information would be available after the fact, in the summer or beyond.

These would-be restrictions on the wine industry’s ability to deplete local watersheds with their accustomed impunity were largely written by members of the regional wine aristocracy itself, in secretive consultations with their associates in the Sonoma County bureaucracy. The text of the regulations had been in the works for months. Yet, County officials refused to divulge any of the substance of their plans until October, after local environmentalists filed a California Public Records Act.

“It was not an easy process,” says Occidental resident John Roberts, a member of the Sonoma County Water Coalition.  “The County and the wine industry work in close and quiet proximity with one another.”

The current row over frost protection began in early-2009, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) ordered the California State Water Resources Control Board to enact new limitations on the practice in accordance with the Endangered Species Act.  The National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of NOAA, had documented two episodes of fish stranding that occurred in April 2008, the first on Felta Creek in Sonoma County, and the second on the mainstem of the Russian River, near Hopland in Mendocino County, as well as additional instances in 2009.

In response, the wine industry intensified its customarily heavy lobbying activities, with the corporate grape growers lining up to portray themselves, at various turns, as environmentally responsible stewards of their land and, thus, worthy of autonomy from any form of state regulation; too important to the regional economy to abide by laws that might in any way restrict their ability to extract the greatest possible profit margins, which their present non-regulated mode of operation enables them; and not as bad as the marijuana industry, which is unregulated, so wine-grapes should remain unregulated merely out of fairness.

The region’s perpetually hyperbolic viticulturists have even been touting apocalyptic fantasies concerning the impacts of regulation on water-intensive frost protection methods, which they have said will essentially destroy their industry.  The sad fact, however, is that the centralized regulatory bureaucracies in Sacramento and Washington, DC, have long demonstrated themselves wholly uninterested in enforcing even their existing regulations, which would be more than enough to reform the wine industry’s hyper-exploitative present mode of operation.

The wine industry is already blatantly thumbing its nose at existing laws.  A majority of known diversion ponds in the Russian River basin – more than 800 of them – were constructed without a permit.  The State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB), which one local activist has described as “supervised by one of the meanest nests of entrenched vipers in the arid state of California,” does nothing to address this problem.

Much of the regulatory apparatuses’ ineffectuality owes itself to the wine industry domination of local government, a reflection of agribusiness’ enormous power in California generally; the state capital, whether under a Democrat or a Republican, jumps through the hoop when the grower lobby says the word.  The same is true of local Congressional offices on up to executive branch, where President Obama appointed well-known Monsanto toady Tom Vilsack as his secretary of agriculture. Vilsack appointed the long-time president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers, Karen Ross, as his chief of staff.

Approximately 80 per cent of water in California is used by agribusiness, with regions such as Sonoma County faithfully abiding by roughly this same apportionment of the blue gold.  “Water,” as that old saying in the American West goes, quoted by Marc Reisner in his 1986 classic Cadillac Desert, “flows uphill toward money.”

First District Congressional Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Gallo Sonoma), co-founder of the Congressional Wine Caucus, is the wine industry’s greatest gofer on Capitol Hill.  As soon as the frost protection controversy became a matter of federal concern, Thompson leapt into action.  In a letter dated January 13, 2010, Thompson wrote California State Water Resources Control Board Chairman Charles Hoppin to advocate against any form of regulation on wine.

At the Sonoma County level, the wine industry’s most accomplished legislative booster is a former local vineyard executive named Paul Kelley, a county supervisor who helped force the frost protection ordinance onto the Supervisors’ agenda prior to his departure from the board at the end of the year.   Kelley’s replacement is former Healdsburg city councilor Mike McGuire, another favorite of the local grape lobby.

Even one of the Sonoma County Supervisors’ self-styled environmentalists, Efren Carrillo, largely owes his seat on the Board to the Napa-based vineyard development firm Premier Pacific Vineyards.  Carrillo, who represents northwest Sonoma County’s fifth district, entered the 2008 Supervisors race only after all of the existing candidates came out publicly in opposition to Premier Pacific’s massive Preservation Ranch forest-to-vineyard conversion project along the border of Sonoma and Mendocino counties, in the Gualala River water basin.  The project would involve cutting 1,700 acres of forest and replacing them with mono-crop grapes, in the largest forest conversion project in California’s history.  Premier Pacific was among Carrillo’s donors, while one of the company’s spokespeople — Eric Koenighofer, himself a former Sonoma County supervisors — doubled as Carrillo’s de facto campaign manager from the day he entered the race.

How Sonoma County’s new program will mesh with the State Water Resources Control Board new regulations, which are expected in 2012, remains unclear.  For its part, the SWRCB is currently presided over by one of the biggest rice growers in the state.  The current president of another of the state’s regulatory bodies, the California Association of Water Agencies, is none other than Paul Kelley, the aforementioned outgoing Sonoma County Supervisor.  Kelley assumed the post shortly after he announced he would not seek reelection to another term on the SoCo Supes.  It is a safe bet that the new regulations will not mark a meaningful improvement over those just passed in Sonoma County.

While the narrow issue involved in the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors’ vote this week is frost protection of wine-grapes, a bigger question involves the structure of power not only in Sonoma County but throughout the California North Coast.

This power structure has demonstrated itself impervious to the will of what currently passes for a regional environmental movement, as well as the increasingly vocal concerns of local citizens who overwhelmingly would prefer to see restrictions put on local grape plantings.  The upper-end booze sector’s pathological conviction that it is entitled to nearly every single drop of water in nearly every single local watershed – life in those streams, creeks, and rivers be dammed, and damned – seems poised to remain willfully ignored by public officials at best, and officially sanctioned at worst.

In this context, waterways like the Russian, Gualala, and Navarro Rivers will only continue on their present death spiral absent the near-term emergence of a radical challenge to industrial viticulture’s hyper-exploitative version of business-as-usual.

WILL PARRISH can be reached at  wparrish(a)

This article is part of WILL PARRISH’s ongoing series of on Northern California’s highly destructive corporate wine industry.





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Will Parrish is a freelance investigative journalist based in Northern California.  His web site is Follow him on Twitter @willparrishca.

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