Liquid Gold

Frost, runoff, nonpotables and other watery issues filled the day


TABLED: Water conference members regroup during lunch last week at the Sonoma Mountain Village.

he first ever Wine Country Water Summit on July 16 looked like the start of any corporate conference: attendees flipped through their welcome packets and lined up for diluted coffee. However, the summit soon resembled a high school cafeteria as cliques and gangs merged and eyed each other suspiciously. When it comes to water in Sonoma County, things don’t always flow so smoothly.

As one presenter, quoting Mark Twain, put it: “Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over.”

In January of this year, the Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) declared a countywide drought, causing alarm among city officials, local farmers and environmental advocates alike. Lake Mendocino, the source of the Russian River, which provides water to most of Sonoma County, is currently at only 64 percent of its capacity. A trade journal for the wine industry, Vineyard & Winery Management, saw the implications of low water levels for its readers and organized the conference, attracting engineers, geologists, winery managers, business consultants, well diggers, growers, city officials and a handful of concerned citizens.

“Everybody seemed to be biting their nails,” said publisher Robert Merletti. “We thought that someone should take the first step to bring agricultural and business communities together to start dialogue.”

The conference’s keynote speaker, engineer J. Dietrich Stroeh, was in charge of the Marin Municipal Water District during that county’s legendary 1976–’77 drought, when the main reservoir dropped below 50 percent capacity. Stroeh led the MMWD to radically reduce its water use and find new sources of water for the district. The titular hero of Michael McCarthy’s 2007 book The Man Who Made It Rain about the drought, Stroeh explained that it took the cooperation of the entire community to reduce its water intake. People had block parties to compare water meter readings and carpooled to San Francisco to take showers. Stroeh acknowledged, however, that things have only gotten more complicated when it comes to water issues.

“In the old days, there were only three interests: municipal, industrial and agriculture,” he said. “Now, there are so much more: environmental groups, recreational, fisheries, business. . . . There are tons of competing interests.”

In her remarks, Santa Rosa mayor Susan Gorin continued along this theme of complexity, stressing the importance of addressing all facets of water management, from endangered salmon to climate change. She also explained that possible city action will undoubtedly be expensive. Projects to create more storage for surface water and build more facilities for recycling water could cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars.

“We’ve been complacent for so many years,” Gorin said. “We may have to bite the bullet.”

Things only got more complex and dire as the morning wore on. Sonoma County Water Agency consultant David Smith presented on endangered species issues and on a piece of outdated legislation cryptically titled Decision 1610. Smith said bluntly: “It’s complicated.”

Essentially, Decision 1610 dictates minimum flow requirements for the Russian River based on information from Lake Pillsbury, which mostly feeds into the Eel River, a completely different watershed.

“It’s an obsolete rule. All parties involved are up for changing it,” Smith said.

The Endangered Species Act lists three main endangered species in the Russian River: the Chinook and coho salmon and the steelhead trout. However, Smith also noted that orca whales, which feed on salmon hundreds of miles away, are also implicated in Russian River water issues.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS, and pronounced “nimfs” for anyone in the know) has issued a report called the “Biological Opinion” that dictates a reassessment of Decision 1610 for the benefit of the endangered fish populations on the Russian River, calling for a reduction in the flows on the Russian River to rehabilitate juvenile salmon habitats.

Low flows may be good for salmon but could detract from the river in other vital ways. Russian River Watershed Protection Committee board chair Brenda Adelman frequently grilled presenters about the many implications of their water-management ideas. She worries that the SCWA isn’t putting enough emphasis on conservation.

“I’m not saying they shouldn’t lower flows at all, but when you lower them, there are a lot of water-quality problems,” Adelman said. “If it’s too low, it’s almost impossible for canoes and kayaks to go there. If there was more conservation in the city, [the SCWA] could put more flow into the river.”

In the last presentation before a much-awaited lunch, SCWA assistant general manager Grant Davis spoke on a panel with Sean White, the general manager of the Mendocino County Russian River Flood Control and Water Conservation Improvement District (what White deemed a “26-syllable name for a one-man public agency”). Davis and White addressed big questions and concerns for the gathered wine industry: irrigation and frost prevention.

From March to May, frost can be deadly to grapevines, so growers often employ an “aspersion system” through which they sprinkle vines with water before an oncoming frost. White explained that if Mendocino County growers, who work in colder climates than those in Sonoma County, are faced with a “Sophie’s choice” between using water for irrigation and using water for frost prevention, “100 percent” will choose the latter.

Before NMFS established the Russian River Watershed Frost Prevention Pumping Task Force in July 2008, drawing from the Russian River for frost control had been mostly unregulated, which in the past few years has led to several large-scale fish kills. White pointed to a line graph in his PowerPoint presentation that depicted the water levels in the Russian River during a night with a frost threat. The levels dropped down to 50 percent in that single night. Though White supported the work of the task force, he said that grape growers could not live with a flat-out ban of the practice.

“Frosting is a problem,” White said. “But we can’t live with a ban; that will put the entire upper basin out of business.”

White argued that there needs to be a greater emphasis on creating more water storage and better communication between upper river and lower river management in Mendocino and Sonoma counties, respectively. He also suggested that much of the water used for frost prevention could be drawn from recycled water, essentially treated wastewater from urban use.

While conference-goers milled around during the lunch break, swapped business cards and ate pasta salad, there was at least one voice unsettled by the proposition of using urban wastewater for agricultural needs.

“All this talk of recycled tertiary water—it’s illegal!” said Rohnert Park resident Dawna Gallagher. “What about the runoff going into our water supply?”

Dan Carlson, deputy director of the Santa Rosa Subregional Water Reuse System, outlined Santa Rosa’s recycled water program. He stated that recycled water produced at the plant is clean enough to drink and that vineyards as high-profile as Gallo and Korbel happily use it for irrigation. There remains some question about the total purity of the water; the California State Water Board is currently investigating the presence of flushed pharmaceuticals contaminating the recycled water.

For Adelman, Carlson’s reassurance isn’t enough. “There’s all these unregulated chemicals. I’m still concerned that the state is dragging its feet and we’re losing species.”

Though the SCWA endorses the use of recycled water in vineyard management, not all vintners want to use it. Earlier this year, the board of supervisors had to put a hold on its ambitious North Sonoma County Agricultural Reuse Project, which would have provided treated water to farms and vineyards, because growers worried about its quality. Up until a year ago, recycled wastewater was free for growers; now it costs 95 percent of regular municipal water. Some growers don’t quite see the point.

“There’s a long history of divisiveness,” Adelman said at the end of the day.

“This is a step in the right direction towards good relationships.”

For SCWA, Smith agreed: “I thought it was a really constructive and productive forum to exchange ideas.”

Though water may be scarce in Sonoma County, when it comes to civilized dialogue, the floodgates are beginning to open.

Sonoma County Library