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Frost Protection’s Chilling Impact

In the next few weeks, the California State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) is slated to release its final draft of new regulations governing water pumping for frost protection by the biologically invasive vineyard species of the Russian River basin. A debate concerning the wine industry's impact on watersheds generally, and on the Russian River basin particularly, has intensified accordingly.

For their part, local environmental organizations have been pressing for much stronger regulations than the perennially agribusiness-friendly SWRCB has been wont to consider. To a large extent, the environmentalists — not to mention the the fish who reside in the river — have been aided by the federal government's National Marine Fisheries Service, representatives of which have documented numerous fish killings and strandings they say were a clear result of grape growers' custom of collectively drawing hundreds of millions of gallons of water out of the Russian River to protect new bud growth on their vines on frigid nights.

Many of the growers, on the other hand, have lined up to portray themselves as responsible river stewards who have been unfairly blamed for the utter decline of anadromous fish populations across recent years, including the virtual extinction of federally endangered coho salmon. For roughly a decade, the California Department of Fish and Game has regarded Russian River coho to be “extirpated or nearly so,” as an early-'00s report by the department put it. This sort of catastrophic decline in fish populations, it should be noted, has occurred not only in the Russian River, but in countless other river basins where monumentally water-intensive agribusinesses have run amok, on which more below.

First, a reminder to AVA readers about the nature of the subject at hand. While the term “frost protection” does not connote the sort of rapacious water displacement more often associated in the public mind with, say, “natural gas fracking” or the “Canadian Tar Sands,” or even “Central Valley agribusiness,” the scale of its impact on regional watersheds — the Russian, Eel, Gualala, and Navarro — is nevertheless dramatic, and has often times been catastrophic.

In spring, grape vines emerge from their winter dormancy with the initiation of new vegetative growth, which sprouts from buds established in the previous growing season. Frost can damage this new tissue and significantly affect the subsequent yield of grapes. Growers almost universally combat the threat via an extensive network of overhead sprinklers that sprawl out across each row of grapes, dowsing them with a continuous coat of water. Water applied in this manner forms a protective layer of ice over the new growth and protects it from damage.

According to David Keller of Friends of the Eel River, citing a wine industry attorney with first-hand knowledge of the subject, there are roughly 32,000 acres of winegrapes in Sonoma County and Mendocino County that use this advanced industrial system of frost protection. A slight majority of that acreage — 16,400 — is lodged here in Mendo, perhaps the most frost- prone major grape growing area of California.

The upshot is as follows: Frost protection involves pumping of 50-55 gallons of water per minute for each acre of vineyard, depending on which estimate you believe. Thus, if every frost protection-dependent vineyard fires up its overhead sprinklers at once, as has no doubt happened numerous times over the years, that's 770 million to 845 million gallons of water displaced over an eight-hour period — roughly the length of time of a typical “frost event.” The average household in water-starved Ukiah, by comparison, uses about .0000028 percent that amount daily.

As an illustration of how this enormous and virtually instantaneous demand on the river basin translates on the ground, consider the consequences it wrought in the spring of 2008. Water pumping by vineyards created a one-third reduction of water flow in the 10-mile segment of the Russian River from Ukiah to Hopland alone. All told, vineyards in the frost-prone areas of the basin sucked out a majority of the water flow in the section of the river that flows through that particular stretch of southern Mendocino and northern Sonoma counties. That was the year that the National Marine Fisheries Service finally leapt into action, documenting kills of endangered fish species and calling for new regulations on frost protection draws.

The State Water Resources Control Board's release of the new regulations will follow on two years of formal proceedings whereby the agency has conducted several public hearings and gathered input from both grape growers and environmentalists — mostly the former. Most recently, in March, the Board released a first draft of the new regulations, which failed to require that stream flow gauges will be placed in the Russian River and its feeder streams provide live data — that is, data that would actually prove useful in limiting damage to the river. Instead, the information would be available after the fact, in the summer or beyond.

Moreover, the Control Board envisions drawing extra water from Lake Mendocino to compensate for overdrafting by frost-water irrigation. Lake Mendo serves to collect water from the Eel River and umbilically channel it into the main stem Russian River, much to the detriment of both river systems. And the SWRCB even admits that it has no intention of fully enforcing the regulations, only vowing to do so to the best of its ability. The literally countless growers whose vineyards rely on illegal (i.e., non-permitted) water diversions would, on the surface, it seems, be immune from the regulations.

If there's a silver lining, it's that the Water Resources Control Board's regulations are something of an improvement over those proposed by Sonoma County itself, which its Board of Supervisors released in an effort to preempt the anticipated stronger state regulations in December. The county's version of frost protection restrictions on grape growers were a product of secretive consultations between representatives of the SoCo Board of Supervisors and, of course, the regional wine aristocracy itself. It was designed to keep the power to regulate local water use squarely in the hands of those who are most responsible for the Russian River's current plight: vineyard operators. A new non-profit organization called the Russian River Water Conservation Council, wholly composed of area grape growers, had been slated to oversee the SoCo frost protection program.

Perhaps the most oft-quoted grower representative has been Pete Opatz, vineyard manager for Silverado Premium Partners, one of the largest industry players in Napa and Sonoma, with more than 5,000 acres of vineyards under cultivation in those North Bay counties alone. Although wine industry representatives have repeatedly promoted a storyline about being poorly-funded underdogs who are up against a consortium of extremely well-funded environmental organizations, little could be further from the truth, as Opatz' allegiances alone amply demonstrate. Silverado Premium Partners' early investors included Texas Pacific Group, the largest private equity firm in the world at present. Its current principal investors are Harvard University's enormous endowment fund, entitled Harvard Management Company, and the $10 billion financial services firm John Hancock Insurance.

Other visible grower reps have included the regional vineyard managers of the world's two largest wine corporations, E&J Gallo and Constellation Brands, whose names are, respectively Keith Horn and Scott Johnson. The aforementioned three individuals constituted three of the five members of the non-profit organization the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors authorized to oversee their frost protection program, in a decision akin to asking representatives of Exxon-Mobil, Chevron, and British Petroleum to oversee oil extraction on the Gulf Coast.

At any rate, dissension within the ranks scuttled the Sonoma County plan, as a number of grape growers were not even willing to abide by the minimalistic regulatory system on offer, particularly its requirement that they at virtually whatever point convenient to them report how much water they were using.

Yet, the possibility of stronger regulations may have gained a small amount of extra impetus a few weeks ago, on April 28th, when a member of the Marine Fisheries Service's law enforcement division documented a fish stranding in the west fork Russian River near Redwood Valley, which the agency contends was a result of frost protection. The fisheries biologist in question, Dan Torquemada, found 21 stranded fish, which he says indicates exponentially more were actually stranded. Similarly, Fisheries Service officials estimate that 25,000 fish died from frost protection pumping in the Russian River basin in 2008 near Hopland alone, extrapolating from a similar discovery of numerous dead and stranded fish in the region.

Wine industry representatives dispute those claims, contending that the fish strandings resulted solely from the hot weather causing the river to dry up.

As with other segments of large agribusiness, the wine industry's disproportionate command over water supplies owes itself not to any particular social benefit the industry claims to be providing. In the case of agribusiness, that may include the notion that a greater number of children in India will starve to death if Central Valley farmers aren't given enough of a massive water appropriation. In the wine industry's case, the storyline is that major economic damage will play out across hyper-gentrified wine country if modest regulations on frost protection are put in place.

Throughout the frost protection saga, fisheries advocates, environmental and watershed groups, and downstream water rights holders have commendably acted to ensure that at least some sort of restrictions are put in place on the wine industry. Surely, the regulations that will come out are much stronger for their efforts. Sadly, however, the Water Resources Control Board's process has been above all a lesson in the exercise of raw economic and political power, which the wine industry wields in abundance, and which advocates for a saner water policy possess only a marginal amount of. Whatever regulations are put in place in the days to come, those who care about the continuation of life in regional watersheds will need to take even stronger action.


  1. May 20, 2011

    I wonder how common is the double-whammy I notice in my neck of the woods on frost protection mornings: the clear water used for the sprinklers is returned in part as silted runoff.
    Vineyards are usually pretty saturated in the early spring and certainly not all of the water soaks in.
    Another siltation problem is in water used from ponds, perhaps not depleting the stream flow, but negatively affecting the water quality in the fish habitat.
    Through out Will’s articles on the industry is the arrogant sense of entitlement on the part of growers and managers. Not many others benefit from the long embedded practices.
    Jim Armstrong
    Potter Valley

  2. Redwood Mary May 20, 2011

    The Fish and the Forest were here first– NOT agribusiness. We have enough wine– if the buds freeze – its Mother Nature’s way of saying enough — unless of course you are growing biodynamic organic fair trade grapes Mother Nature Rules.
    Leave be the wild places .

  3. Trelanie Hill May 22, 2011

    The upshot is as follows: Frost protection involves pumping of 50-55 gallons of water per minute for each acre of vineyard, depending on which estimate you believe. Thus, if every frost protection-dependent vineyard fires up its overhead sprinklers at once, as has no doubt happened numerous times over the years, that’s 770 million to 845 million gallons of water displaced over an eight-hour period — roughly the length of time of a typical “frost event.” The average household in water-starved Ukiah, by comparison, uses about .0000028 percent that amount daily

    Why doesn’t anyone mention this incredible amount of water use when we are blaming medical marijuana growers for rivers drying up?

  4. Will Parrish May 25, 2011

    One of the big problems with the proliferation of ponds, by the way, is that they provide the freshwater stillwater habitat that predatory, non-native bullfrogs love. The bullfrogs eat native amphibians, baby salmon (“fry”), you name it — just about any prey that fit in their mouths.

    A more technically worded explanation courtesy biologist Peter Baye regarding ponds near Annapolis, in the Gualala River basin, though you can substitute the Anderson Valley and the Navarro River or any given valley along the Russian River in the applicable places if you like: “The constellation of vineyard reservoirs in Annapolis provides this invasive species with potential permanent refuges and breeding habitats within dispersal distance to creek corridors and connections to the Gualala River.”

    Lots of apologists for the wine industry, including Rep. Mike Thompson, contend that further development of the dense network of giant, Caterpillar-hewn reservoirs that already exists all over Wine Country is a “fish friendly farming” alternative to pumping straight out of rivers, creeks, and streams. Far from it.

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