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Turning Water into Wine

The unregulated growth of California's wine industry in the state's coastal regions is depleting groundwater supplies and devastating rivers and fisheries.

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Wine is a major example. If California were its own country, it would be the world's fourth leading wine producer — after Italy, France, and Spain. And with global sales of $24.6 billion in 2014, wine is far and away California's most lucrative finished agricultural product. Milk, with $9.4 billion in 2014 revenue, ranks second.

When it comes to the prodigious consumption of water by California agribusiness, nut crops (especially almonds) and alfalfa have drawn the most attention during the drought — and deservedly so. The nut boom sweeping the San Joaquin Valley is driving up water demand because almonds and pistachios are thirstier than many annual row crops, and because they can't be fallowed when water supplies are tight. And, according to an estimate by professor Robert Glennon from Arizona College of Law, California is exporting 100 billion gallons of water a year to China in the form of alfalfa hay, a water-hungry, but nutritious animal feed.

On the surface, winegrapes are not typically viewed as a water-guzzler. They require lower volumes of irrigation water per acre than most other crops grown in the state. But winegrapes are California's third most widely planted crop, after alfalfa and almonds. More than 600,000 acres of the state are now under the vine (an increase of about 300 percent since 1975.) And, in addition to irrigation, vineyard operators spray water aerially to protect vines from frost in spring and from heat in summer, which can threaten grape survival and sugar quality, respectively.

Moreover, as UC Berkeley's Merenlender noted in regard to human impacts on watersheds, it's all about "location, location, location." Historically, the vast majority of California winegrapes were grown in the large, flat Central Valley where the long, hot summers are helpful for growing big volumes of sweet grapes (many times the per area yield of Napa). But since the Seventies, Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties — which now represent the core of California's premium winegrowing region — have seen an explosion in grape plantings, as have the Central Coast counties of Monterey, San Louis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and — to a lesser extent — Santa Cruz.

As a result, the wine industry has reached a historic turning point: Roughly half of California winegrapes are now cultivated in mountainous coastal regions, often in areas where only lower value agriculture such as cattle grazing would otherwise exist. And as the wine industry has expanded onto hillsides, it has relied on the large-scale clear-cutting of oak woodlands, chaparral, and even redwoods — including on steep, erodible hillsides, often causing sediment to wash into streams and fill fish-spawning pools.

"Until recently, water use by vineyards wasn't a problem you heard about," said Bill Friedland, a UC Santa Cruz professor emeritus of sociology who has studied California agribusiness for nearly a half-century and is the author of the forthcoming book Trampling Out Advantage: The Political Economy of California Wine and Grapes. "Now, it's becoming something that various levels of government — the state and also counties — will increasingly have to deal with."

In northern San Louis Obispo County, for example, the wine industry has expanded by more than 12,000 acres in the past ten years. Because most of the vineyards rely on wellwater, the region's main aquifer has suffered an enormous drawdown. The San Luis Obispo County Department of Public Works determined that the majority of the Paso Robles groundwater basin has suffered water drops of 70 feet or more since 1997. And winegrape growers pump more water from the aquifer than any other user, by far. In 2013, the county finally adopted an ordinance that strongly restricted the development of new wells.

In the Central Valley, winegrape growers are also at the center of major battles concerning the state's biggest water-supply projects. More winegrapes are grown in San Joaquin County — roughly 100,000 — than in any other county in the state. And, along with nut crops, such as almonds and pistachios, winegrapes are one of the most commonly grown crops in the Westlands Water District: the nation's largest and most powerful agricultural water district, known for its lobbying on behalf of greater water exports from Northern California.

Even in Northern California, where rainfall is more abundant, the issue has long since reached a crisis stage. In Napa County, water supply battles involving the wine industry have been common for more than two decades. Even less prominent wine-growing areas, such as Lake County and Amador County in the Sierra foothills, are seeing increasing numbers of water-supply battles between grape growers and residents. "The convulsions between urban and agricultural uses of California water that are bubbling have just begun, with water supplies getting more scarce," Friedland said.


Governor Brown celebrated this year's Earth Day by sipping wine at an Iron Horse Vineyards soiree outside the pastoral western Sonoma County town of Sebastopol. The vineyard's CEO, Joy Sterling, is a member of the Brown administration's Board of Food and Agriculture, which advises Brown and California Secretary of Food and Agriculture Karen Ross on policies that impact the state's agribusinesses. More than ever, those policies tend to relate to the theme of the governor's Earth Day address: water.