Editor’s Preface: The Navarro River has never been in a more dire condition. Mike Koepf tells us why, and how it might be restored.
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Cattails. I saw them for the first time this summer. A patch was growing on the south bank, another at the end of the small island that lies near the river’s mouth that’s currently blocked by sand. Cattails exist on the periphery of ponds and marshes. They are abundantly seen in bogs. Cattails are often deliberately planted in slow, effluent-bearing streams flowing from wastewater treatment plants. Cattails remove nutrients—usually ammonia from animal waste or fertilizers. Ammonia accelerates algae growth. Unfortunately—as yet—there are not enough cattails to remove the nutrients in the estuarine mouth of the Navarro River.
A scummy sheen of algae grows longer and wider everyday. If blue-green algae are present, deadly microcystins may be there. There’s already a reported incident of a dog dying after drinking water from the Navarro River. Is the mouth of the Navarro River becoming a poisonous swamp?
In the 1950s and 60s, while driving up or down the twisting curves of the Navarro grade on Highway One, it wasn’t unusual for drivers or passengers to see outboard motor boats with sport fishermen entering and leaving the Navarro River to and from from the sea. In the 1960s I saw a small fishing boat with an inboard engine enter the Navarro. It had to be high tide. Where it was going I don’t know. Safely anchored from the wind or to a cabin up stream? In summer, like Big River to the north and the Garcia to the south, the waters of the Navarro River usually flowed clear and unimpeded to the sea. If a northwest wind blew hard for several days it drove a current that often pushed sand up on the beach. It could close the mouth for several days. However, there was always enough water flowing down the river from the forest and the Anderson Valley drainage to reopen the river’s mouth.
Historically, the Navarro was open to the sea. In the mid-ninetieth century, there was a lumber mill near the beach. Lumber schooners anchored off the Navarro and lighters, shallow draft scows, ferried the wood through the river’s entrance and out to waiting ships. The Navarro River was tidal—a river synchronized to the pulse of the sea. Baby crabs and juvenile fish crawled and swam in from the ocean seeking shelter from predators. Sand sharks nosed about. Flounders found a home, but, most essentially, salmonoids—young Coho, Kings and Steelhead lingered in the estuary, where the fresh water mixed with salt, to acclimatize them to the sea.
Years ago, I shared the occasional afternoon drink in the now defunct Oasis bar in Elk with Ted Galletti, a former supervisor of Mendocino County. Galletti served during a time when practical, ordinary people still entered local government. That was before the progressive, big thinkers and SEIU took control to put the county in the hole. Raised on a farm, Ted spoke of the Navarro River in the days of long ago, when farmers took their wagons and trucks to the mouth of the Navarro River after the King and Coho salmon had spawned. Spent carcasses littered the banks. The farmers scavenged the salmon by the hundreds and took them home to feed their pigs.
Things are different now. According to a report by the California Department of Fish and Game, in 2014 zero salmon—Coho or Kings—entered the river and 419 was the estimated Steelhead count. A few years ago, juvenile Steelhead could often be seen in the evening breaking the surface in the Navarro estuary. I don’t see them anymore since the algae have taken over and the Navarro estuary warms to the temperature of urine. The simplistic may blame it on the drought or global warming, but last winter at my home on Greenwood ridge we had 52 inches of rain. Two cords went up in smoke to keep me from the cold.
Recently, it was rumored that a single acre of land in Anderson Valley sold for $100,000 dollars. Pinot was the cause. In the Napa valley and Sonoma country, pinot real estate has gone as high as $200,000 dollars an acre. There is little doubt about it, the pinot rush is on. A back-to-the-lander hippie currently approaching the age of a social security check, who bought their patch of paradise in Anderson Valley cheap in 1971 to build his class K home and grow a bit of weed, could now easily be a millionaire. Ditto for the sheep rancher driven out of business by the so-called global economy and cheap, New Zealand lamb. A decent bottle of pinot, a wine I do enjoy, starts at $35 bucks in Anderson Valley and the sky’s the limit at Golden Eye.
It’s estimated that currently in Anderson Valley there are about 2,800 acres in vines. At an estimated average of 1500 vines per acre spaced in rows of four by seven feet, that’s roughly 4,200,000 thirsty plants in need of water during the crucial growing months.
According to a 2013 report entitled Assessment of Vineyard Water Use in the Navarro River Water Shed compiled by the University of California UCCE cooperating with the country of Mendocino and the Nature Conservancy, the vines in Anderson Valley are irrigated on average 60 times in a growing season for an average of 5 hours per watering. Soil, topography, canopy and growing methods vary from vineyard to vineyard, thus, water consumption for individual vineyards varies. Nonetheless, during the peak growing season from June to harvest it’s estimated that a single acre of vines can use up to 750 gallons of water per hour.
Five hours of drip irrigation at 750 gallons equals 3, 750 gallons per watering cycle. 60 seasonal irrigations cycles times 3,750 gallons equals 225,000 gallons of water for an acre during the growing season. This amount times 2,800 acres roughly equals 630 million gallons of water, which is enough to float a ship.
An acre-foot of water—that’s a cube of water a bit more than 280 feet by 280 feet—equals 325,851 gallons of water. This amount divided into 630 million equals around 1,933 acre-feet of water. In terms of an Olympian size swimming pool, that’s 953, fifty by twenty-five meter pools of water delivered to the vines, some of which ends up in that expensive bottle of pinot before we slurp it down.
That’s a significant amount of water that’s absent from the river as it flows down through the forest headed to the sea where it now ends up in the swamp that exists at the Navarro’s mouth. And this does not count the estimated and annual 678 acre-feet used for frost protection (in the high water flowing months) or the 457 acre-feet used for orchards and another 132 acre-feet used for pastures.
Added all together that’s a considerable amount of water missing from the river’s mouth, and that’s not counting domestic use.
Some vineyards and orchards prudently have their own ponds to collect water in the winter for use in the summer months. According to the University of California UCCE report, there are 165 ponds in the valley that can hold 819 acre-feet, although not all of them are used for grapes.
Some are for aesthetics, others for wildlife, livestock or pasture irrigation. However, even if every pond were used for grapes there would still be about 1,114 acre-feet missing from the river during the crucial, summer months.
It’s interesting to note that the joint University of California UCCE, Mendocino County, and Nature Conservatory study and abstract of 2009 states that that vintners used 537 acre-feet of water during the summer months. This figure falls far short of the 1,933 acre-feet mentioned above. Interestingly, the lower figures for water use in the abstract are denoted as grower surveys. Were the professors, politicians, bureaucrats and high-end environmentalists who authored this report spending too much time in the tasting rooms? Did they walk down to the river in late summer to take a look at the water beneath the old concrete bridge on the Philo-Greenwood road? Did they see the algae in the river where it never bloomed before?
The findings in the Assessment of Vineyard Water Use in the Navarro River Water Shed concludes with a note of special thanks to:, amongst others, the Anderson Valley Wine Growers Association, Roederer Estate US, and Mendocino Wine Inc. Were the folks who turned the spigot, the ones who reported use?
Not all of the water used for wine or orchard production in Anderson Valley is pumped directly from the river, although much still is. As noted, a percentage of irrigation flows from ponds. Water is pumped from wells. Springs also aid irrigation. However, where was all this water headed before it was going to be used for wine? The aquifer’s the aquifer and to the river it flows.
I enjoy and patronize various wineries that make their home in Anderson Valley. Years ago, I was a friend of Tony Husch before he ended his life. He was one of the first boutique vintners into Anderson Valley. Tony had the foresight to see the grand potential of this place. He labored seven days a week. Through Tony I came to appreciate just how hard it is to produce wine from an acre of dirt. Nowdays, I realize that big investors have moved in, but there are still plenty of small time and family vintners who create exceptional wines working harder than anyone else.
When it comes to agriculture I prefer wineries compared to dope and sensimilla and the endless, selfish problems: the murder and the violence as well as the constant, pharmaceutical flimflam that it will cure anything that ails. It takes years to produce good wine. As a business, wine’ a commitment to a place. The vineyards are here to stay. But when I sip a glass of Anderson Valley pinot, I can also taste a river, and if the vineyards keep expanding will there be a taste of dust in my mouth?
Cattails in the estuary; algae bank to bank, it’s dangerous to drink the water, and there’s hardly any fish around. Where’s the County in all of this? Discussing pot dispensaries or a new courthouse for their pals?
My simple thought is this: the way to save the river is to turn to those who might be sucking it dry. Vintners are resourceful people. It’s not easy to manipulate nature and make a decent bottle of wine. The county politicians, the county bureaucrats as well as the professors who tell them what is right make their livings in their chairs. A vintner gets dirt on their hands, and those who’ve arrived with money have to write the checks for those that do. Do they need to greatly expand the their ponds to collect the winter run off that’s wasted in the sea? Should there be a moratorium on expanding vineyard’s? Can they cut down on irrigation?
In Europe, and especially France, which produces some the finest wines in the world, irrigating the best vines is actually against the law! Not because of wasted water, but because of making better wine. The French call it “la concentration,” denoting wines that have depth and richness that gives them special appeal and interest. The concentration comes from the skins of the grapes that grow on vines that have worked very hard to succeed. Minimum water is part of the deal.
In the end, can the vintners join together to save a failing river? Could they build a small hatchery on Indian Creek to mitigate the loss of fish? It wouldn’t cost more than a tasting room. Is anything to be done? Or…has cynicism been bottled and bought? Do vintners think that the public doesn’t care as they stop to taste their wine, buy a bottle and drive away? Wine producers are smarter than that.
If the river dwindles to a trickle, bad publicity could be next and when that comes to the wonderful wines of Anderson Valley that may be worse than blight. If the winegrowers can save the river, they may actually be saving themselves. But…if the cattails keep expanding, we’ll know precisely who has failed.