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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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While looking out at Iron Horse Vineyard's three hundred acres of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapevines, Brown was upbeat about the state's ability to weather the dry months ahead. He also implored households to do more to conserve. However, he said nothing about the amount of water guzzled by Sonoma County's wine industry, by far the largest consumer of water in the area.

It's also not clear whether Brown was aware of the fact that Iron Horse Vineyards had been at the center of a debate in the local daily, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, concerning high water use. The day of the governor's appearance, the Press Democrat published an op-ed by the vineyard's manager, Laurence Sterling, who defended his farm and its growing practices. "Mainly, we are not judged by our farming method or our water usage," Sterling wrote. "We are judged on how our wines taste."

Sebastopol organic berry farmer Shepherd Bliss has helped rally a four-county coalition to press for a moratorium on new vineyards, wineries, tasting rooms, and vineyard event centers. "It was an insult to Sonoma County rural residents for Governor Brown to come through on Earth Day at Iron Horse Winery — the day after one of the co-owners published an article in the Press Democrat about why he does not dry-farm," Bliss told me.

Prior to the 1970s, most premium winegrapes were dry-farmed in California. According to conventional wisdom, stressing a grape vine by restricting the availability of water to it results in a cascade of effects that lead to better quality grapes. But growers found that they could obtain far bigger — and more predictable — yields if vines were irrigated. Growers were responding to an increasing global demand for California wines, and were helping foster that demand through marketing campaigns.

A turning point arrived in the late 1980s, when the devastating vine louse phylloxera hit the state. Large swaths of California vineyards were replanted. During replanting, many growers ditched the drought-resistant rootstock that was commonly used in the state — such as the popular hybrid, AxR1 — in favor of shallow-rooted rootstock that evolved next to stream banks.

Under the tutelage of UC Davis' influential viticulture and enology professoriate, the state's wine industry also sought to increase the density of vineyards, thereby increasing revenue and yield. Whereas 450 vines per acre was the norm through the 1970s, the number soon soared to 2,500. Vines competed for the soil's water and prompted the need for 100 to 200 gallons of water per vine per season (each vine typically yields enough grapes for two to four bottles of quality wine per year.)

Over the years, wine growers have defended their practices by pointing to their use of drip irrigation — which offers the greatest control over timing and amounts of water delivered to the vineyard — to show that they have been trying to conserve water.

"[W]inegrape growers are highly invested in using the least amount of water necessary to produce the highest quality crop possible," Sonoma County Winegrape Commission spokesperson Sean Carroll told me.

Partly in response to the water crisis in the Russian River watershed, the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission has established a goal of having 100 percent of vineyard operations certified as sustainably grown by 2020.

But environmentalists criticize both the sustainability certification process and California's regulatory efforts for their failure to account for cumulative impacts. "There is nothing in the scoring provisions of the sustainable certification program regarding cumulative withdrawals either from surface-water or groundwater," said David Keller, a former Petaluma city councilmember who has a keen interest in water issues and is now the Bay Area director of Friends of the Eel River "You can have everyone saying, 'Here's our score, we've reduced our demand, look how wonderful we are.' But if the watershed is still being drained, the fish still die."

The Russian River watershed, where Governor Brown appeared on Earth Day, reflects the failure of California's regulatory system to account for cumulative impacts associated with winegrowing. The Russian begins as a trickle in the pine-studded hills at the far end of Redwood Valley, a dozen or so miles north of Ukiah, and eventually drains 1,485 square miles of Mendocino and Sonoma counties on its journey to where it meets the ocean in Jenner. It's the second largest river in the nine-county Bay Area — after the Sacramento — and is historically known for its abundance of salmon and trout.

But the four horsemen of fisheries collapse — habitat degradation, dams, weakening of the genetic pool through the use of hatcheries, and over-fishing — have taken an enormous toll. The Russian River is home to three fish on the endangered species list: coho salmon (which are endangered) and Chinook salmon and steelhead (which are threatened). Yet regulations have widely failed to protect each of these fish's habitat.

Under California's "water rights" system, holders of senior water rights and riparian rights (those with property along stream channels) enjoy a greater priority for diverting water. To divert and store water for agricultural use, landowners must apply for a water rights permit from the State Water Resources Control Board.

"Those who started development and use water first have first priority of rights," said John O'Hagan, a water rights specialist for the state Water Board, in an interview. "Those are often holders of riparian rights — property owners along a stream."