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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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But, according to the Water Board, the Russian River, like many rivers in California, is over-appropriated, meaning that during the dry season the amount of water diverted from the Russian exceeds the amount water that flows into it from its tributaries. In the 1990s, approval of new water rights slowed to a crawl after coho salmon received the endangered listing. Yet, even then, the problem of unsustainable water withdrawals expanded.

Because the premium winegrape boom was in full flower, enormous financial forces were at work. For example, wine industry goliath E&J Gallo founded its first subsidiary dedicated solely to producing high-end wines in 1993: Gallo of Sonoma. The company amassed 6,000 acres in Sonoma County, often re-sculpting the land with excavators and removing as much as 80 percent of the soil to make way for end-to-end trellises and vines on the flattened-out expanses. The company then erected a veritable Taj Mahal to the premium wine boom, a $100 million winery in the once-sleepy northern Sonoma County town of Healdsburg, capable of producing 4.7 million cases of high-end wine annually —enough to fill 17 Olympic-size swimming pools.

To supply the water, Gallo constructed an 8.2 surface-acre pit reservoir to capture the headwaters of a feeder stream to Dry Creek (a Russian River tributary). The Gallo reservoir has a capacity of 250 acre-feet and depth of 45 feet. And records show that because the state Water Board had suspended Gallo's permitting process, the company did not bother to get a permit.

The company was not alone. In 2007, Stetson Engineering, a consultant hired by the Water Board, found that the Russian River has more illegal surface water reservoirs — roughly eight hundred — than any river system in California at the time. Collectively, these illegal systems divert more than 30,000 acre-feet of water a year.

In 2009, the legislature approved Senate Bill X7-8, which funded the addition of 25 new enforcement staffers in the Water Board's Water Rights division to crack down on illegal diversions throughout the state.

"We've had a large enforcement effort for several years to try to find any illegal diversions that there are, and we have brought those people into the system with applications to make what was unpermitted permitted," said Barbara Evoy, deputy director of the state Water Board's Division of Water Rights, in an interview.

An analysis for this article, however, reveals that the Water Board has only taken an enforcement action against one set of illegal water diversions in the Russian River since passage of Senate Bill X7-8: the Gallo reservoirs. And, while the Water Board issued nineteen new water rights permits in the Russian River watershed between 2010 and 2013, many of those were unrelated to the 800 illegal diversions found in the Stetson Engineering study.


The State Water Resources Control Board has created new regulations for one aspect of the wine industry's water use: frost protection. In spring, grape vines emerge from their winter dormancy with new vegetative growth that sprouts from buds established in the previous growing season. Frost can damage this new tissue and significantly affect the subsequent yield of grapes. Growers have increasingly sprayed water, via overhead sprinklers, on the vines to form a protective layer of ice over the new growth.

The amount of water that this practice requires, as longtime Russian River grape-grower Rodney Strong noted in a 1993 interview with UC Oral History, is "horrendous" — typically, 50 to 55 gallons per minute per acre. In 2005, University of California biologists documented up to 97 percent stream flow reductions due to frost protection activities in Maacama Creek, one of the Russian River's largest tributaries. The National Marine Fisheries Service estimated that 25,872 steelhead trout — a federally listed species — died as a result of frost protection in a 28-mile stretch of the upper Russian River on April 20, 2008 alone. Only two wild coho salmon returned to the river that year, and both of them ended up stranded on the banks of the low-flowing river.

New frost protection regulations go into effect this year, requiring that all diversions for frost protection occur under the auspices of "water demand management programs." But some critics say the problem is the proliferation of grapes grown in frost-prone areas. And the Water Board does not make avoidance of such areas a requirement for permitting.

The wine industry's activities have not just taken a huge toll on the Russian, but also on the Eel River, which is protected under California's Wild and Scenic Rivers designation. In 1905, hand laborers dug a tunnel through a mountain north of Ukiah and diverted a substantial portion of the Eel's main stem into the east fork of the Russian. Since creation of the diversion, known as the Potter Valley Project, both watersheds have experienced extensive environmental degradation from gravel mining, timber harvesting, and, as a growing body of evidence indicates, the diversion itself. The tunnel diverts as much as 95 percent of the Eel's headwaters.

Keller, the Bay Area director of Friends of the Eel River, is pushing to end the Potter Valley Project. "The people and agencies who manage the Russian River have been using water diverted from the Eel River to mask problems in the Russian River for decades," he said. "As a result, both rivers suffer real damages. We need to end the use of the Eel as a bandage for the Russian."