Pulling the Plug

State considers emergency regulations to protect North Bay salmon


North Bay fish are getting stepped on. In our watersheds, the salmon were historically so plentiful that legend tells of foot travelers crossing streams on the backs of these gnarly spawners, muscular as boulders. Whether or not these beauties actually kept anyone’s feet dry, their dwindling descendants in the wine country can barely keep themselves wet, thanks to unregulated, for-profit stream diversions.

Our native salmonids, in particular the coho and steelhead swimming between river and sea, are in rapid decline. Fish advocates are urging the state to regulate all the small but numerous water diversions made by those who profit at the expense of fish: the bad-boy players in wine-grape agriculture. Guardians of the surviving salmon species are looking to the guardians of the state waterways to come up with a management plan that will allow for protecting wine crops without driving salmon to extinction. The issues will be addressed Wednesday, Nov. 18, as the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) convenes its Russian River frost-protection workshop.

Wine grapes themselves are not big drinkers. In fact, the fruit used in wine production is improved by underwatering rather than overwatering vines. Water use becomes an eco-drain when stream levels are low during a frost and growers pump tributary water to spray vines, protecting the crop from frost damage. The crop is saved at the expense of the fish, which are deprived of the water—both in quality and quantity—needed for their basic life processes.

Not all wine-grape farmers divert stream water for frost protection in the Russian River Basin. In fact, alternatives are practiced in Mendocino and Sonoma counties by such growers as Fetzer, Beckstoffer, Dolan, Sawyer and La Ribera, among others. These winegrowers use storage ponds from which to draw when the frost threatens the vines. Wine-grape growers in Napa County provide a model for self-regulation with a program that requires farmers to take protective measures before diversions or other “unreasonable” actions are taken to protect crops.

In Napa as well as Sonoma and Mendocino counties, growers have shown leadership by investing in ponds and other storage alternatives to avoid taking water needed by the fish. However, the less scrupulous simply pump water out of tributaries as they wish. Too many of these diversions kill fish, including such species near the crashing point as coho salmon. Researchers found that when “multiple, simultaneous small diversions” from tributaries reduced stream flow levels, there was a corresponding drop in water temperatures. These temperature fluctuations kill fish, even if lowered water flows do not.

Such kills can be avoided. The problem is that the state is not adequately managing the public waterways. Big water projects appear on the state’s regulatory radar, but who notices when a wine-grape farmer sticks a pump in a well right next to a creek? Most tributary water runs underground and gets pumped away from fish habitat. (California is one of the few states that doesn’t regulate groundwater—yet.)

No one is counting how many people are taking stream water, when they’re taking it or how much they are taking. Fish advocates say they should be counted, claiming there is enough water for both fish and wine grapes to thrive, if the SWRCB would only tighten its management. Fish advocates salute efforts made by the Russian River Flood Control District, the Sonoma County Farm Bureau and participants in the Fish Friendly Farming program for efforts to protect fish. But the bad-boy growers will not do the right thing if it’s only voluntary.

Defenders of salmon want emergency regulations for 2010, followed by permanent regulations in concert with a management plan that makes sense and keeps the salmon alive. They also want eco-criminals to be held accountable for stealing from fish and simultaneously taking unfair market advantage over growers who do the right thing.

In a commentary submitted to the SWRCB on behalf of the Sierra Club’s Redwood Chapter, Institute for Fisheries Resources biologist Patrick Higgins wrote that the effects of tributary diversions in the Russian River watershed are grave. “Pacific salmon species will not thrive,” Higgins wrote, “or even survive into the future without profound change in California water policy and management.”

Sonoma County Library