On April 21st, officials with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the State Water Resources Control Board sent joint letters to property owners in four of the Russian River's largest tributaries imploring them to conserve water on behalf of a federally-listed endangered species: Coho salmon. Its 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.”
When forester and hydrologist Jim Doerksen returned from vacation last week and read the letter, he was – as he terms it – “insulted.” Doerksen's property features nearly a mile of Mark West Creek frontage. As Doerksen is intimately aware, having owned his property since 1967, the creek was once known for its thrashing, silvery surges of salmon and trout. But the first of the four horsemen of fisheries collapse – habitat degradation, dams, weakening of the genetic pool through the use of hatcheries, and over-fishing – have taken an enormous toll.
The cause of the habitat loss in Mark West Creek is summed up on a sign strung to a tree on the northwestern edge of Doerksen's property, located along St. Helena Rd.: “Vineyards SUCK! Water.” “In the meetings I have had with you and [fellow Water Board staff member] Tom Howard, I have consistently emphasized that the State Water Board has always shirked its responsibility when it comes to protecting salmonids in Mark West Creek as required by the 'Public Trust Doctrine' and AB 2121,” Doerksen wrote in response, in a letter addressed to State Water Board Deputy Director of Water Rights Barbara Evoy. “In the Water Rights Complaint [RPL:262 (49-15-07)] filed by Grif Okie and myself, backed up by 5,000 pages of documentation, we emphasize that Mark West Creek was being dewatered directly due to actions taken by the State Water Resources Control Board and the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, and because of the total inaction of the Calif. Department of Fish and Wildlife.”
Some history is in order. In 1967, Jim Doerksen purchased 500 acres of ranch land on St. Helena Rd., about seven miles northeast of Santa Rosa, and meticulously removed fruit orchards, exotic annual grasses, and tangles of brush where old vineyards had been, replacing them with redwood trees and Doug-firs. The land had consisted of a redwood- and fir-dominant forest prior to the arrival of Euroamericans.
The land's response has been nearly miraculous. By the early-2000s, visitors from the American Forestry Foundation informed Doerksen that more timber per acre was growing on his land than anywhere they know of in North America. And, as Doerksen fastidiously nursed the land back to health, the watershed's abundance also increased.
When Doerksen purchased the property, the water level in his permitted reservoir was 16 feet below the top. Today, the reservoir is generously overflowing into its spillway. Last summer, the water level in the pond went down only eight inches – a sign of enormously productive springs. Large forests are, after all, extremely efficient at enhancing groundwater retention, and redwood trees also capture enormous quantities of so-called “fog drip.”
In the 1980s, the California Department of Fish & Wildlife (nee, Fish & Game) surveyed Mark West Creek's fishery habitat and concluded that the stretch running through the Doerksen property was perhaps Sonoma County's most ideal spawning area for Coho salmon.
In the 1990s, owners of land upstream of Doerksen started converting their land into grapes. Mountain-top and hillside vineyards became all the rage in the premium wine industry at the time. The notion that the distinct character of particular vineyard parcels are expressed through the wines produced from them, and that an appreciation for those signifies membership in a learned, privilege order of wine aficionados, were becoming increasingly popular with consumers who sought new forms of conspicuous consumption to indulge in. Corduroy-like rows of grapes marched steadily up into mountain ranges stretching across the north and central coasts.
In upper Mark West Creek, the planting binge started with the owner of a multi-million dollar dentistry consulting business in Marin County, named Pride, who converted approximately 80 acres of oak woodlands to vineyards in 1995. Next came an heir to the General Motors fortune named Fred Fisher. But the coup de grace occurred when Henry Cornell, an investment banker at Goldman Sachs, Inc., in New York City purchased 120 acres and carried out a series of clear-cuts to make way for a vineyard and winery.
The removal of anchoring vegetation activated a landslide: 10,000 cubic feet of soil washed into the creek during a winter storm. In the next few years, Doerksen watched as the spawning pools running through his property filled with sediment. The coho stopped returning.
Doerksen leads me to the southeastern end of his house, where he has scrawled rainfall totals on a wall in his laundry room annually for nearly 30 years. The realization that his beloved creek was dying remains clearly etched in his mind. In the 2005-06 rain year, Doerksen’s rain gauge recorded a remarkable 98 inches of precipitation. Yet, the recorded water level in his creek cross-section declined by more than half.
The problem is straightforward: wells drilled by grape growers. Groundwater extraction draws down the aquifer, which historically feeds into the creek via “sub-surface flows.” And the forest clear-cuts had likely reduced the soil's ability to absorb and store water, slowly filtering it back into the creek drainage as it has done for eons. Rumor has it that Pride Vineyards' wells are 1,200 feet deep.
But that information can only remain a rumor under California water law, barring a whistleblower leak from either the State Water Resources Control Board or someone else with privileged access to Pride's well logs. Since 1949, the California Legislature has required well drillers to file well completion reports with the States for each well drilled. Two years later, the legislature enacted legislation – at the agribusiness lobby's behest – restricting access to this information.
This past March, State Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) introduced legislation that would greatly assist California residents such as those whose wells have gone dry in Mark West Creek. The bill would make well completion reports available to the public, as part of a drought-induced legislative push across the past year to enhance regulation of groundwater. A coalition of agricultural opponents, however, stated in the official legislation packet: “We believe this measure will only assist those trolling for lawsuits."
The California Association of Winegrape Growers and other agribusiness groups oppose the measure, which has already been approved by the state Senate Committee on Environmental Quality. The Sunday, April 26th, Business section of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, in its serial “Viticulture Briefs,” featured a piece called “Water Well Legislation Considered” that implored growers to speak out against the Pavley bill.
Mark West Creek once provided important habitat for fish in the Russian River system as a whole. Steelhead and salmon ecologist Stacey Li, a former long-time water rights specialist for the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), has been involved in habitat monitoring throughout Northern California.
"Thirty or 40 years ago, if you said 'Steelhead,' the first thing that came to mind was the Russian River,” Li told me in 2011. “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.”
Now, there are barely any fish to be seen – and the problem is independent of the drought. Although California in general is in one of its worst droughts in recorded history, the impact varies by location. Upper Mark West Creek, for instance, saw far less rainfall on an annual average basis from 1986 to 1993 than from 2012 to the present. Yet, the three instream gauges maintained by federal and state regulators in that section of the creek never recorded flows of less than two cubic feet per second.
Now, thanks to the creek's dewatering by enormously well-endowed grape growers, who are growing these crops almost entirely as a lifestyle choice, the creek runs dry. And the problem is not driven principally by a lack of rainfall. In the 2005-06 rain year, upper Mark West Creek received a remarkably 98 inches of rain. The first year the creek ran dry in its recorded history? 2006.
Last year, the 28-mile creek channel ran entirely dry other than on a roughly 3.5-mile stretch along the Doerksen property and its neighbors. Thanks to the Doerksens' yeoman land restoration, they have dozens of active springs. As Doerksen notes, his property may now be the only one contributing any base flow into the creek.
The death of Mark West Creek, and the obviousness of its cause, points to problem that applies to countless other regions of California, a state that has been uniquely reluctant – in large part due to the power of its enormous agribusiness sector – to enact even the most paltry of regulations on water use. In wine country, where hillside vineyards sprawl across remote reaches of the country. In such a region, a large number of decentralized water projects are the primary means to meet water supply needs. State and federal agencies collect virtually no information on the water use in these areas, and they only become involved in regulating activities when an endangered or otherwise protected species of fish is killed.
Yet, even at this late date, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and State Water Resources Control Board are only asking for voluntary cut-backs of water consumption in the Russian River. And, even then, they are only asking for the voluntary cut-backs in the four creeks they have identified as being the most promising for the recovery of coho salmon.
“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.”
In the last five years, Jim Doerksen has watched as the National Marine Fisheries Service has deposited tens of thousands of coho salmon raised at the Dan Clausen Fish Hatchery on Lake Sonoma into Mark West Creek. The fish start out in reasonably good condition. By early-summer, the creek has been diminished into a series of disconnected pools. By August, the fish are all dead. The temperatures are too hot. The pools are too shallow.
The lack of summer-time water is not the only reason fish are dying in the creek. Flows are now too violent in the winter. The vines need water when the fish need it most and they use a lot at that time. Clearing the forest to plant vines increases erosion and decreases water absorbed into the soil needed to replenish the groundwater.
In November 2010, I published an 8,000-word article in the AVA called “The Murder of Mark West Creek,” which described the corruption on the part of the County of Sonoma and the State Water Board that allowed Mark West Creek to be dewatered and sedimented to the point that exceedingly few fish can live there. This month, a Sonoma County judge will rule on a lawsuit against Goldman Sachs banker Henry Cornell's proposed new winery upstream of the Doerksen property.
(Contact Will Parrish at firstname.lastname@example.org.)