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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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California's wine industry is well known for its influence within the corridors of the state Capitol. As lobbying and campaign donation records reveal, wineries and their political action committees spend enormous sums of money to press for favorable laws regarding zoning, labor, and subsidies, and to block tighter regulations on water use. The industry also lobbies for the expansion of water supplies through construction of new dams and reservoirs, including those that would bolster the governor's Delta tunnels project.

In March, state Senator Fran Pavley (D-Calabasas) introduced legislation that would require that the state reveal for the first time the location and depth of water wells in California. Since 1949, the California Legislature has required well drillers to file reports with the state for each well drilled. But in 1951, the legislature enacted rules — at the behest of the agribusiness lobby — that restrict access to this information. In all other western states, such reports are public, and in many states, they're searchable online.

The California Association of Winegrape Growers and other business groups oppose the Pavley's bill, but it has been approved by the state Senate Committee on Environmental Quality on the grounds that it would dramatically increase the collective understanding of our state's groundwater system.

Among those lobbying for new water infrastructure is the wine industry, including the California Association of Winegrape Growers (CAWG). In a letter regarding California's Water Plan 2050, CAWG President John Aguirre wrote to Governor Brown and other state officials to push for larger dams in California.

"We also believe the state should actively support opportunities to expand water storage by raising dam heights at existing reservoir sites," Aguirre wrote. "A prime example is the current US Bureau of Reclamation proposal to raise the Shasta Dam by 18.5 feet, which would create an additional 634,000 acre-feet of water storage, expand the cold water pool to benefit anadromous fish, and provide additional water for the Central Valley Project and California's State Water Project."

Among those receiving the letter was California Secretary of Food and Agriculture Karen Ross, who served as president of the CAWG for thirteen years prior to her appointment to her current post by Governor Brown. The wine industry, according to statistical data from the Secretary of State, also poured $134,000 into Brown's 2010 campaign for governor.

Before it started to run dry, Mark West Creek provided important habitat for fish in the Russian River system. "Thirty or forty years ago, if you said 'steelhead,' the first thing that came to mind was the Russian River," said Stacey Li — a steelhead and salmon ecologist who is a former water rights specialist for the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and has been involved in habitat monitoring throughout Northern California — in a 2011 interview.

And when the Russian River was a world-renowned fishery, Mark West probably was the major contributor to supplying the Russian River in general. I have not seen abundances that high anywhere else in California."

State regulatory officials acknowledge the importance of the creek to salmonids. On April 2, officials with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife CDFW) and the State Water Resources Control Board sent a joint letter to property owners in four of the Russian River's largest tributaries imploring them to conserve water on behalf of endangered coho salmon. The subject header was "Urgent Voluntary Drought Initiative Request to Maintain Stream Flow for Coho Salmon in Reaches of Green Valley, Dutch Bill, Mark West, and Mill Creeks, Tributaries to the Russian River, Sonoma County."

The letter stated: "The ecosystem and the survival of coho salmon are at a precarious junction and until the winter rain comes again, every week is critical for these endangered salmon. CDFW and the State Board are asking for landowner assistance in helping to protect and preserve our fragile Russian River coho salmon population by participating in voluntary drought agreements that will help to maintain stream flows for juvenile fish passage from May 1 to June 30 and for subsistence flows after July 1."

Jim Doerksen said that when he returned from vacation last week and read the letter, he was insulted. The lack of water in Mark West Creek, he said, is not being driven mainly by the drought. The upper section of the creek, for example, saw far less rainfall on an annual average basis from 1986 to 1993 than from 2012 to the present. Yet, in-stream gauges, in that section of the creek never recorded flows of less than two cubic feet per second during those earlier years.

In the 2006–07 rain year, Mark West Creek ran dry for the first time in its recorded history. Last year, the 28-mile Mark West Creek channel ran dry again — except for a roughly 3.5-mile stretch along Doerksen's property and that of his neighbors. Nearly all of the fish in the river — planted there from a fish hatchery — died.