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Turning Water Into Wine

The unregulated expansion of California’s wine industry into the state’s coastal regions is depleting groundwater supplies and devastating rivers and fisheries.

Along the border of Sonoma and Napa counties, roughly seven miles northeast of Santa Rosa, hydrologist and forester Jim Doerksen took me to the southeastern end of his house, where he has scrawled annual rainfall totals on his laundry room wall for more than thirty years. It was an early-spring morning, and fog draped the redwoods and Doug firs in a ghostly gray on the north-facing slope above Doerksen’s home.

In the 2005-06 rain year, Doerksen’s gauge recorded nearly 100 inches of precipitation. Yet, the water level that year in Mark West Creek — a tributary of the Russian River, historically known for its thrashing, silvery surges of salmon and trout — had declined by more than half.

The realization that his beloved creek was drying up, even in a wet year, remains clearly etched in Doerksen’s mind a decade later. As a former a staff hydrologist for Santa Clara County, Doerksen also is keenly aware of what happened. He explained that the depletion of an underground aquifer, which feeds the creek, caused it to run dry.

“A fractured-bedrock aquifer lies beneath this part of the Mayacamas Mountain range, dispensing water through pores in the sub-surface rock,” he said. “When the groundwater level drops below these pores, the aquifer ceases to dispense — you end up with a dry creek.”

On the northwestern edge of Doerksen’s property, a sign strung to a tree describes this problem even more succinctly and identifies the culprit: “Vineyards SUCK! Water.”

Historically, much of California’s wine industry had been centered in the Central Valley. But by the latter part of the 20th century, the notion that the distinct character of a particular vineyard is expressed through the wines produced from it had become a popular notion among American wine drinkers. With acreage on valley floors all but exhausted,  grape growers responded by touting coastal ridgetop vineyards as boasting California’s best terroir. And so corduroy-like rows of grapes marched up hillsides and onto ridgetops in California’s northern and central coastal areas.

The growth of hillside vineyards was a free-for-all. “When it comes to agriculture, there’s no statewide regulation that prevents oak woodland and chaparral fragmentation and habitat loss,” explained Adina Merenlender, a UC Berkeley Cooperative Extension specialist in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management who has studied the conversion of woodlands to vineyards in Sonoma County. “It’s discouraging.”

In upper Mark West Creek, the conversion to vineyards started with the owner of a multimillion-dollar dentistry consulting business in Marin County — named Pride — that installed eighty acres of grapes on a ridgetop where oaks had previously stood. The next person to plant a ridgetop vineyard in the area was Fred Fisher, an heir to the General Motors fortune. The coup de grace occurred when Henry Cornell, an investment banker from Goldman Sachs in New York City, purchased 120 acres and clear-cut the forests on his property to make way for a vineyard and winery.

The removal of anchoring vegetation activated a landslide, causing 10,000 cubic feet of soil to wash into the creek during a winter storm in 2006. In the next few years, Doerksen watched as the spawning pools that run through his property filled with sediment. The creek became lifeless.

It was a cruel turn of events. After Doerksen had purchased his five hundred-acre property in 1967, he had removed exotic annual grasses, shrubs, fruit orchards, and tangles of brush where old vineyards had been, replacing them with redwood trees and Doug firs. By the early 2000s, visitors from the American Forestry Foundation told him that more timber per acre was growing on his land than anywhere they knew of in North America. And, as he fastidiously nursed the land back to health, the watershed’s abundance had also increased.

In the 1980s, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (then called, “Fish and Game”) conducted a long-term study of Mark West Creek fishery habitat and concluded that the stretch running through the Doerksens’ ranch was perhaps the most ideal spawning area for coho salmon in all of Sonoma County. Mature redwood forests are extremely efficient at enhancing groundwater retention and also capture enormous quantities of water from the air through a process known as “fog drip.”

With much the same zeal as Doerksen applied to his yeoman forestry work, he – and many of his neighbors – set out to stop the ridgetop vineyards from destroying the creek. But they soon discovered that the state’s regulatory system is tilted strongly in favor of vineyard developers, and that the wine industry is a distinct but powerful player in the state’s influential agribusiness lobby, which has warded off most regulation of its activities, including those that impact California’s water supplies and the health of the state’s increasingly fragile rivers and fisheries.

* * *

As California enters the fourth year of what some commentators have called The Great Drought, the power of California’s agribusiness sector has been vividly on display. Governor Jerry Brown recently mandated that cities slash water consumption this year by 25% compared to 2013 levels. But he spared agribusiness — even though it uses roughly 80% of California’s developed water supply — from any cutbacks. In an interview on ABC News, Brown defended his decision, saying that California farmers “are not taking longer showers or watering their lawns. They are growing most of the fruits and vegetables of America.”

The power of agribusiness has mystified many commentators in the state, because crop production only accounts for about 2% of California’s total economic output. Agriculture, though, involves far more than sale of crops to distributors. It also involves “finishing” the products, such as processing tomatoes into ketchup or pasta, and then canning them. And it involves transporting crops to markets throughout the world. Agricultural products, for example, account nearly half the total value of exports leaving the Port of Oakland.

Wine is a major example. If California were its own country, it would be the world's fourth leading wine producer — after Italy, France, and Spain. And with global sales of $24.6 billion in 2014, wine is far and away California’s most lucrative finished agricultural product. Milk, with $9.4 billion in 2014 revenue, ranks second.

When it comes to the prodigious consumption of water by California agribusiness, nut crops (especially almonds) and alfalfa have drawn the most attention during the drought — and deservedly so. The nut boom sweeping the San Joaquin Valley is driving up water demand because almonds and pistachios are thirstier than many annual row crops, and they can’t be fallowed when water supplies are tight. And, according to an estimate by professor Robert Glennon from Arizona College of Law, California is exporting 100 billion gallons a year to China in the form of alfalfa hay, a water-hungry but nutritious animal feed.

Winegrapes are not typically viewed as water-guzzler. They require lower volumes of irrigation water per area than most other crops grown in the state. But winegrapes are California’s third most widely planted crop, after alfalfa and almonds. More than 600,000 acres of the state are now under the vine (an increase of around 300% since 1975.) And, in addition to irrigation, vineyard operators spray water aerially to protect vines from frost in spring and from heat in summer, which can threaten grape survival and sugar quality, respectively.

Moreover, as UC Berkeley’s Merenlender noted in regard to human impacts on watersheds, it’s all about “location, location, location.” Historically, the vast majority of California winegrapes were grown in the large, flat Central Valley where the long, hot summers are helpful for growing big volumes of sweet grapes (many times the per area yield of Napa). But since the Seventies, Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties — which now represent the core of California’s premium winegrowing region — have seen an explosion in grape plantings, as have the Central Coast counties of Monterey, San Louis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and — to a lesser extent — Santa Cruz.

As a result, the wine industry has reached a historic turning point: Roughly half of California winegrapes are now cultivated in mountainous coastal regions, often in areas where no other agriculture would otherwise exist. And as the wine industry has expanded onto hillsides, it has relied on the large-scale clear-cutting of oak woodlands, chaparral, and even redwoods — including on steep, erodible hillsides, often causing sediment to wash into streams and fill fish-spawning pools.

“Until recently, water use by vineyards wasn’t a problem you heard about,” said Bill Friedland, a UC Santa Cruz professor emeritus of sociology who has studied California agribusiness for nearly a half-century and is the author of the forthcoming book Trampling Out Advantage: The Political Economy of Wine and Grapes. “Now, it’s becoming something that various levels of government — the state and also counties — will increasingly have to deal with.”

In northern San Luis Obispo County, for example, the wine industry has expanded by more than 12,000 acres in the past ten years. Because most of the vineyards rely on wellwater, the region’s main aquifer has suffered an enormous drawdown. The San Luis Obispo County Department of Public Works determined that the majority of the Paso Robles-area groundwater basin has suffered water drops of 70 feet or more since 1997. And winegrape growers pump more water from the aquifer than any other user, by far. The county adopted an ordinance strongly restricting development of new wells in 2013.

In the Central Valley, winegrape growers are also at the center of major battles concerning the state’s biggest water-supply projects. More winegrapes are grown in San Joaquin County — roughly 100,000 — than in any other county in the state.

Even in Northern California, where rainfall is more abundant, the issue has long since reached a crisis stage. In Napa County, water supply battles involving the wine industry have been common for more than two decades. Even less prominent wine-growing areas, such as Lake County and Amador County in the Sierra foothills, are seeing increasing numbers of water-supply battles between grape growers and residents. “The convulsions between urban and agricultural uses of California water that are bubbling have just begun, with water supplies getting more scarce,” Friedland said.

* * *

Governor Brown celebrated this year’s Earth Day by sipping wine at an Iron Horse Vineyards soiree outside of the pastoral western Sonoma County town of Sebastopol. The vineyard’s CEO, Joy Sterling, is a member of the Brown administration’s Board of Food and Agriculture, which advises Brown and California Secretary of Food and Agriculture Karen Ross on policies that impact the state’s agribusinesses. More than ever, those policies tend to relate to the theme of the governor’s Earth Day address: water.

While looking out at Iron Horse Vineyard’s three hundred acres of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapevines, Brown was upbeat about the state’s ability to weather the dry months ahead. He also implored households to do more to conserve. However, he said nothing about the amount of water guzzled by Sonoma County’s wine industry, by far the largest consumer of water in the area.

It’s also not clear whether Brown was aware of the fact that Iron Horse Vineyards had been at the center of a debate in the local daily, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, concerning high water-use. The day of the governor’s appearance, the Press Democrat published an op-ed by the vineyard’s manager, Laurence Sterling, who defended his farm and its growing practices. “Mainly, we are not judged by our farming method or our water usage,” Sterling wrote. “We are judged on how our wines taste.”

Sebastopol organic berry farmer Shepherd Bliss has helped rally a four-county coalition to press for a moratorium on new vineyards, wineries, tasting rooms, and vineyard event centers. “It was an insult to Sonoma County rural residents for Governor Brown come through on Earth Day at Iron Horse Winery — the day after one of the co-owners published an article in the Press Democrat about why he does not dry-farm,” Bliss told me.

Prior to the 1970s, most premium winegrapes were dry-farmed in California. According to conventional wisdom, stressing a grape vine by restricting the availability of water to it results in a cascade of effects that lead to better quality grapes. But growers found that they could obtain far bigger — and more predictable — yields if vines were irrigated. Growers were responding to an increasing global demand for California wines, and were helping foster that demand through marketing campaigns.

A turning point arrived in the late-1980s, when the devastating vine louse phylloxera hit the state. Large swaths of California vineyards were replanted. A key decision during replanting of many vineyards was to ditch more drought-resistant rootstock commonly used in the state in favor of rootstocks of Vitis riparia parentage, which evolved next to stream banks.  In this way, the crisis became a key way of increasing output from the premium grape-growing counties: the new rootstocks could be planted in increased densities since they did not produce deep taproots.

Under the tutelage of the University of California, Davis’ influential viticulture and enology professoriate, the state’s wine industry sought to increase the density of vineyards, thereby increasing revenue and yield. Whereas 450 vines per acre was the norm through the 1970s, the number soon soared to 2,500. Vines competed for the soil’s water and prompted the need for 100 to 200 gallons of water per vine per season (each vine typically yields enough grapes for two to four bottles of quality wine per year.)

Over the years, wine growers have defended their practices by pointing to their use of drip irrigation — which offers the greatest control over timing and amounts of water delivered to the vineyard — to show that they have been trying to conserve water.

“[W]inegrape growers are highly invested in using the least amount of water necessary to produce the highest quality crop possible,” Sonoma County Winegrape Commission Communications Director Sean Carroll told me.

Partly in response to the water crisis in the Russian River watershed, the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission has established a goal of having 100% of vineyard operations certified as sustainably grown by 2020.

But environmentalists criticize both the sustainability certification process and California's regulatory efforts for their failure to account for cumulative impacts.

“There is nothing in the scoring provisions of the sustainable certification program regarding cumulative withdrawals either from surface-water or groundwater,” said David Keller, a former Petaluma city councilmember who has a keen interest in water issues and is now the Bay Area director of Friends of the Eel River “You can have everyone saying, ‘Here's our score, we’ve reduced our demand, look how wonderful we are.’ But if the watershed is still being drained, the fish still die.”

* * *

The Russian River watershed, where Governor Brown appeared on Earth Day, reflects the failure of California’s regulatory system to account for cumulative impacts associated with winegrowing. The Russian begins as a trickle in the pine-studded hills at the far end of Redwood Valley, a dozen or so miles north of Ukiah, and eventually drains 1,485 square miles of Mendocino and Sonoma counties on its journey to where it meets the ocean in Jenner. It’s the second largest river in the nine-county Bay Area — after the Sacramento — and is historically known for its abundance of salmon and trout.

But 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 Russian River is home to three fish on the endangered species list: coho salmon (which are endangered)

and Chinook salmon and steelhead (which are threatened). Yet regulations have widely failed to protect each of these fish’s habitat. By 2001, the river's Coho population had plummeted to four returning spawners.

Under existing water law, the State of California essentially owns and controls the use of surface water, so landowners must apply for a water rights permit from the State Water Resources Control Board to divert and store water for agricultural use. Under the state’s “water rights” system, holders of senior water rights and riparian rights (those with property along stream channels) enjoy a greater priority for diverting water.

“Those who started development and use water first have first priority of rights,” said John O’Hagan, a water rights specialist for the state Water Board, in an interview. “Those are often holders of riparian rights — property owners along a stream.”

But the Russian River, like many rivers in California, has been deemed over-appropriated by the Water Board, meaning that during the dry season the amount of water used from the Russian River exceeds its natural inflow. In the 1990s, approval of new water rights slowed to a crawl after salmon were listed under the Endangered Species Act. Even then, the problem of unsustainable water withdrawals expanded.

Because the premium winegrape boom was in full flower, enormous financial forces were at work. For example, wine industry goliath E&J Gallo founded its first subsidiary dedicated solely to producing high-end wines in 1993: Gallo of Sonoma. The company amassed 6,000 acres in Sonoma County, often re-sculpting the land with excavators and removing as much as 80% of the soil to make way for end-to-end trellises and vines on the flattened-out expanses. The company then erected a veritable Taj Mahal to the premium wine boom, a $100 million winery outside of the once-sleepy northern Sonoma County town of Healdsburg, capable of producing 4.7 million cases of high-end wine annually —enough to fill 17 Olympic-size swimming pools.

To supply the water, Gallo constructed an 8.2 surface-acre pit reservoir to capture the headwaters of a feeder stream to Dry Creek (a Russian River tributary). The Gallo reservoir has a capacity of 250 acre-feet and depth of 45 feet. And records show that because the state Water Board had suspended Gallo’s permitting process, the company to divert the water without a permit.

Gallo was not alone. In 2007, Stetson Engineering, a consultant hired by the Water Board, found that the Russian River had more illegal surface water reservoirs — roughly eight hundred — than any river system in California. Collectively, these illegal systems were diverting more than 30,000 acre-feet of water a year.

In 2009, the legislature approved Senate Bill X7-8, which funded the addition of 25 new enforcement staffers in the Water Board’s Water Rights division to crack down on illegal diversions throughout the state.

“We’ve had a large enforcement effort for several years to try to find any illegal diversions that there are, and we have brought those people into the system with applications to make what was unpermitted permitted,” said Barbara Evoy, deputy director of the state Water Board's Division of Water Rights, in an interview.

An analysis for this article, however, reveals that the Water Board has only taken an enforcement action against one set of illegal water diversions in the Russian River since passage of Senate Bill X7-8: the Gallo reservoirs. And, while the Water Board issued 19 new water rights permits in the Russian River watershed between 2010 and 2013, many of those are unrelated to the 800 illegal diversions found in the Stetson Engineering study.

* * *

The State Water Resources Control Board has created new regulations for one aspect of the wine industry’s water use: frost protection. In spring, grape vines emerge from their winter dormancy with new vegetative growth that sprouts from buds established in the previous growing season. Frost can damage this new tissue and significantly affect the subsequent yield of grapes. Growers have increasingly sprayed water, via overhead sprinklers, on the vines to form a protective layer of ice over the new growth. The amount of water that this practice requires, as long-time Russian River grape-grower Rodney Strong noted in a 1993 interview with UC Oral History, is “horrendous” — typically, 50 to 55 gallons per minute per acre. In 2005, University of California biologists documented up to 97% stream flow reductions due to frost protection activities in Maacama Creek, one of the Russian River’s five main tributaries. The National Marine Fisheries Service estimated that 25,872 steelhead trout — a federally listed species — died as a result of frost protection in a 28-mile stretch of the upper Russian River on April 20, 2008 alone. Only two wild coho salmon returned to the river, that year, and both were stranded on the banks – likely a consequence of vineyard frost protection. New frost protection regulations go into effect this year, requiring that all diversions for frost protection occur under the auspices of “water demand management programs.” But some critics say the problem is the proliferation of grapes grown in frost-prone areas. And the Water Board does not make avoidance of such areas a requirement for permitting.

The wine industry’s activities have not just taken a huge toll on the Russian, but also on the Eel River, which is protected under California’s Wild and Scenic Rivers designation. In 1905, hand laborers dug a tunnel through a mountain north of Ukiah and diverted a substantial portion of the Eel's main stem into the east fork of the Russian. Since creation of the diversion, known as the Potter Valley Project, both watersheds have experienced extensive environmental degradation from gravel mining, timber harvesting, and, as a growing body of evidence indicates, the diversion itself. The tunnel diverts as much as 95% of the Eel’s headwaters.Keller, the Bay Area director of Friends of the Eel River, is pushing to end the Potter Valley Project. “The people and agencies who manage the Russian River have been using water diverted from the Eel River to mask problems in the Russian River for decades,” he said. “As a result, both rivers suffer real damages. We need to end the abuse of the Eel as a bandage for the Russian."

* * *

The lack of summer-time water is not the only reason fish are dying in the watershed. The most important habitat for the fish is provided by the tributaries rather than the main stem. Clearing the forest to plant vines increases erosion and decreases water absorbed into the soil needed to replenish the groundwater.

The problem is partly one of timing and location. The vines need water when the fish need it most, in the spring and summer, and they use it in huge quantities at that time. After spawning, juvenile salmon will spend a significant portion of their early life stages in the high-elevation, oak- dominated portions of the Russian River watershed in preparation for their downstream migration to the ocean.  No other form of California agriculture, with the possible exception of marijuana cultivation, has encroached as much upon these spawning and rearing areas.

Laws to protect aquatic habitat on the Pacific Coast large revolve around protection of endangered salmon and trout.  Yet, efforts to protect what remains of fisheries face an uphill battle, partly because 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. [I haven't seen the wine industry trade associations specifically lobby for the tunnels project, though the Shasta Dam raise's approval would give the tunnels proposal a boost.]

In March, state Senator Fran Pavley (D-Calabasas) introduced legislation that would greatly assist California residents whose wells have gone dry, such as those in Mark West Creek. The bill (number?) would make well completion reports available to the public, allowing residents to know the size of neighboring wells. It would be one small but meaningful departure from California's long-standing system of 'pump as you may' whereby those with more capital drill deeper and out-pump the little guy whose wells go dry. Since 1949, the California Legislature has required well drillers to file well completion 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 often searchable online. The California Association of Winegrape Growers and other business groups oppose the Pavley’s bill, but its has been approved by the state Senate Committee on Environmental Quality on the grounds that it would dramatically increase 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 Aguire 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 joint a 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 returned from vacation last week and read the letter, he was insulted. As he says, the problem is not being driven mainly by the drought. 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, in-stream gauges in that section of the creek never recorded flows of less than two cubic feet per second during those earlier years. (This may have been slightly inaccurate as previously written.)

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 — 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.

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