Back in 2015 the City of Ukiah applied for and received water bond grants and loans for over $30 million for what has since come to be known as the “purple pipe project” — a large water-sewer plumbing/pump/pond project that reclaims treated wastewater from Ukiah’s sewage treatment plant in huge ponds south of Ukiah, which is then used for Ukiah Valley “agriculture” to reduce direct pumping from the Russian River.
A major phase of the project was completed a few months ago, largely through the professional efforts of former Russian River Flood Control District manager and Ukiah’s current Water-Sewer Director Sean White, a competent manager certainly, but who historically has always worked in the best interests of the wine industry.
On its face, the idea of using reclaimed water for grapes instead of pumping directly out of the Russian River seems like a step forward. But Sunday morning we saw a report by Ukiah Daily Journal reporter Justine Frederiksen entitled “Purple Pipe passes ‘mock frost.’
See how this works? A few years ago the state water board issued a rule requiring Ukiah Valley grape growers to prepare their own plans to avoid de-watering the Russian River during “frost events” when they all pump at the same time stranding and killing endangered fish.
The Ukiah grape growers quickly screamed bloody murder and sued and won a friendly ruling from Ukiah Judge Ann Moorman preventing the water board from such an impertinence as asking the grape growers to more effectively manage their water pumping for the sake of the river and the fish in it. That provincial ruling was, of course, overturned a year later when the appeals court said that asking grape growers for water management plans was legal. The grape growers grudgingly began submitting plans to the water board.
Then in November of 2014 came Proposition 1, the huge California water bond.
Proposition 1 “authorizes $7.5 billion in general bonds to fund the overhaul of the state's water system with the construction of dams and groundwater storage, watershed protection and restoration, improvements to groundwater and surface water quality, and flood protection. The bill aims to help California's water system meet the state's needs over the long-term.”
That’s how it was sold, and not surprisingly it passed by an overwhelming 67% yes vote.
Little did anyone know at the time, that one of the main local beneficiaries would be a bailout of Ukiah Valley grape growers who now, at no cost to themselves, but with the expenditure of over $30 million of taxpayer water bond money — double that actually because it’s a bond — get a huge influx of over 4.8 million gallons a day of reclaimed water for free so they can sprinkle their grapevines.
Ukiah Valley grape growers are thus spared the expense of the kinds of frost fans Anderson Valley grape growers purchased back in 2013 under similar water shortage conditions. And Ukiah Valley residents will benefit by not facing the threat of having their sleep destroyed by the equivalent of assault helicopters landing on their roofs at 3am.
But is this really the best use of the water bond money?
PS. Sean White’s new system passed the “mock frost” test with flying colors last week. Ukiah Valley grape growers were overjoyed. And Sean White was as proud as he could be: 4.8 million gallons of water a day, he said, “is a lot of water, but we have plenty more and we can store 66 million gallons. So we’re set.”
“We” being Mr. White’s wine industry friends.