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Milovina Fined

According to a wine-grower profile by Congressman Huffman’s (formerly Congressman Thompson’s) aide Heidi Cusick Dickerson back in 2010, Milovina Vineyards grows several varieties of grapes at their “manicured fish friendly farmed vineyards” outside of Hopland. The vineyard is owned and operated by Milovina brothers John, 61 and Jim, 69, and Jim’s son David. Their vineyard property was purchased by John and Jim’s grandfather and father in 1957; it's grown from 40 acres to around 240 acres since then. The expanded acreage in grape vines of course requires more water, water is stored in ponds, the water stored in those ponds for irrigation and frost protection comes from the nearest stream.

And there's the rub.

“Weather is a big factor for farmers,” reports Congressman Huffman’s grape-beguiled aide. “Heavy frosts such as those in 2008 can devastate crops. This was the year when the threat of cutting off water for frost protection loomed over grape growers along the Russian River. But the increased rain and smaller number of frosty nights eased the worry. ‘Mother Nature helped us out,’ said son David. ‘Conservation is a way of life for us farmers from water collection to how our crops are grown,’ added Jim. ‘It’s important because we are conscious of how our growing methods affect the bottom line.’ ‘With government regulations demanding more of growers, we deal with more complicated water rights, air quality, and employment issues,’ added John, ‘Grape growing is not the simple way of life as portrayed in the media’.”

Ms. Cusick-Dickerson adds that “Milovina Vineyards sells their sustainably and organically grown grapes to wineries in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino County.”

That was three years before the State Water Resources Control Board fined Milovina Vineyards $33,800 last week for illegally diverting water from an unnamed tributary to the Russian River into a 1.4-acre reservoir which is used for irrigation and frost protection of about 40 acres of their grapes.

According to Water Board staff, the Milovina family could have been fined up to $2.4 million based on the $500 per day penalty they could have been assessed back to 1999 when Milovina first started pumping from the tributary into their 1.4 acre pond. But out of the goodness of their bureaucratic heart the Water Board decided to reduce the fine to $33,800.

Back in 2009, the Water Board sent out notices to grape growers in the Russian River watershed that they should get their paperwork in order for their ponds and their plumbing or they’d be subject to substantial fines. The paperwork, of course, costs a lot of money and final permits can take years — a serious disincentive to file for them. Until 2009 the possession of a “water right” to pump into a pond was simply a legal requirement — if you didn’t have the official “right” to the water, you couldn’t sue your upstream neighbor for overpumping, depriving you of water.

But in 2009, coincidentally when the state was in a serious budget deficit, the Water Board raised the stakes with their warning that you better have your right — or an application for it on file — or you’d be subject to the fines.

Meanwhile, the Water Board issued regulations that would have required the Russian River watershed wine industry to come up with ways to coordinate their water draws so that they didn’t pump the river and its tributaries dry during heavy frosts, stranding endangered salmon. Rivers and their tributaries are still widely believed to nourish fish. Absence of said water causes fish strandings.

But that relatively reasonable effort by the Water Board was overturned by Mendocino County Superior Court Judge Anne Moorman who ruled in favor of her class-allies — who showed up in force in Moorman’s courtroom — in tossing the new rules which would have allowed the growers to devise their own water plans. (So far, the Water Board hasn’t retaliated in court, but the timing of this latest fine against Milovina sure leaves people to speculate that the $34k fine is somehow connected, a shot across the bow, perhaps.)

In the 90s the Water Board issued a warning to Anderson Valley pond owners to have their paperwork in order based on a flyover which discovered some 600 (!) questionable ponds. Several pond owners filed paperwork in response to that warning, but no one in Anderson Valley has ever been fined for pumping creek water into their ponds without paperwork, even though it’s common.

A glance at the Water Board’s complicated permit applications at the Water Board’s confusing on-line website, in the Anderson Valley case for example, provides only a glimpse at the multiple layers of complexity that California water regulation has come to. Not only are the permits expensive, but they usually involve hiring a costly Sacramento based water consultant to prepare them.

In spite of all these water regulations (the Water Board, Fish & Game, County Planning & Building, etc. all have their fingers in the permit pie), the fish in Anderson Valley’s streams are still struggling because extensive paperwork is not regulation, just a costly hassle for grape growers while winegrowers pump more or less what they want to pump with little fear of actually being caught, much less regulated. Fines, when they are imposed, are almost always imposed on smaller wineries who have limited ability to pay the permit fees, or fight back; they aren't imposed on the big corporate grape growers who can afford the permit costs and who can afford to fight the fines with expensive attorneys and by calling in chits from well-cultivated political connections with this area’s office-holding Democrats at all levels of government.

Also back in the 1990s the Mendocino County Grand Jury recommended that Mendocino County develop a gaging ordinance for the Russian River which would require that flow gages be installed on all pumps and pipes in the Russian River watershed. The ordinance recommended by the Grand Jury would have required all five water districts in the Ukiah Valley as well as all commercial water drawers to have gages. In their response to the Grand Jury, the Board of Supervisors agreed that a gaging ordinance was necessary and that one would be developed and issued. But of course no such ordinance was ever even drafted, much less issued.

When I asked former County Water Agency head Roland Sanford about the gaging ordinance that the Board had agreed to prepare a few years ago (before his Agency was defunded and disbanded), Sanford said there was no ordinance because “the Board of Supervisors never asked me to prepare one.”

In the early 90s, former senior Water Board Staffer Bruce Fodge (who subsequently transferred to Caltrans, remarking as he went that Caltrans was a more environmentally responsible agency than the Water Board) proposed a solution to the apparent impasse which would have simplified and reduced the costs of the permit process and given some real protection to the fish:

Fodge proposed that there be a limited diversion (pumping) season (i.e., the rainy season), that ponds be limited in size, that pipe sizes be limited to one-inch, and that no pumping be allowed unless the flow rate in the river was above a certain number (cubic feet per second, or CFS) — 200 cfs in the case of the Navarro River.

Grape growers didn’t like Fodge’s perfectly reasonable proposal because they didn’t want any regulation at all. Environmentalists didn’t push for it because it wasn’t their idea and, in this county, they tend to be palsy-walsy with the wine industry. Fodge's commonsense proposal would still have allowed a substantial amount of pumping during the rainy season but the Water Board never seriously considered it.

The upshot is the mess we now have: no real regulation of water usage for grapes, costly and time-consuming paperwork requirements which do nothing to protect the fish but make grape growers whine about “over-regulation” at every turn, and random fines for the smaller grape growers who get caught with their paperwork down.

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