The Real Frost Protection Conspiracy

 by on Sep 28th, 2011            The Anderson Valley Advertiser

The primary mandate of the California State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB), a division of the California Environmental Protection Agency, is to ensure adequate water for California’s fish populations. Its actual function, however, has proved to be altogether different.

In recent decades, the SWRCB has presided over the near-extinction of California’s salmonid population. An unprecedented collapse of Central Valley salmon, Delta smelt, longfin smelt, threadfin shad, young striped bass, Sacramento splittail and other fish populations occurred from 2007-2009, with record water exports out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta from 2003 to 2006 being the principal culprit.

One major sub-set of the larger problem of collapsing fisheries involves the North Coast wine industry, which has increasingly depleted, polluted, and sedimented the Russian River and other North Coast waterways across the past few decades, using an amount of water merely to frost-protect grapes in spring that Rodney Strong, patriarch of a famous eponymous wine label in Healdsburg, even referred to as “horrendous.”

Another is that the SWRCB is blithely ignoring one of the greatest, ongoing collective water heists in the history of California. There are currently more than 800 illegal water reservoirs in the Russian River basin alone, out of a total of roughly 1,700 in the North Coast region of Marin, Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties. The Control Board is aware that a massive quantity of the state’s water is being stolen, yet does virtually nothing.

In a 2007 study, the consulting firm Stetson Engineering estimated the capacity of these water impoundments is 48,515 acre feet, amounting to 3,234 surface acres of illegal reservoirs. The reservoirs submerge stream reaches and headwaters, thereby drying up spawning habitat critical to fish. As Arcata-based fisheries biologist Patrick Higgins observes, these “reservoirs are ideal habitat for bull frogs, which decimate native amphibian populations. They are often stocked with warmwater game fish that escape into water bodies below and may predate upon salmonids or displace them through competition.”

Thus far, the SWRCB has gone only so far as to “inspect” some of the diversions. As Vicky Whitney, Chief of the Water Board’s Division of Water rights, wrote in a 2009 e-mail to journalist and activist Patrick Porgans,

“In regard to the identified illegal diversions, although I am obviously aware of them, the Division has not taken follow up action because of a lack of resources. Our enforcement staff has inspected about 130 of the largest illegal storage diversions of the 800 known storage diversions in the Russian River watershed for which the board has no record of a water right. After completing those investigations, the board members directed me to provide a field enforcement presence in the Delta, and the enforcement staff (six of them, which is all of them) were reassigned to investigate suspected illegal delta diversions. Enforcement related to those diversions is imminent.”

Whitney’s e-mail points up one of the difficult political realities in which the SWRCB is enmeshed. The political leadership of the State of California, with its hundreds of billions of dollars in annual economic activity, and with their plan to put forth a $11 billion water bond for the purpose of shipping Sacramento Delta water to southern California via an enormous “peripheral canal,” would have us believe they can only afford to retain six people to enforce water laws throughout the entire state. A small weekly newspaper based in the rural outback of Boonville, CA has a staff nearly as large.

More than three years after National Marine Fisheries Service biologists belatedly documented the wine industry’s long-standing practice of draining watersheds for spring-time “frost protection” does, in fact, kill endangered fish in the Russian River basin, the SWRCB unveiled its new policy vis-a-vis water diversions for frost protection. As the SWRCB deliberated at length on how best to protect fish without perpetrating any sort of economic harm on the wine industry (the latter being the overriding priority), the fish continued to die en masse; the massive appropriations of water proceded unabated. As Forestville environmental attorney Kimberly Burr put it, “The state chose in lieu of emergency regulation to engage in a protracted process to accommodate any and all individuals wishing to grow grapes.”

We have reported on this matter in the AVA extensively in the past. In spring, grape vines emerge from their winter dormancy with the initiation of new vegetative growth, which sprouts from buds established in the previous growing season. Frost can damage this new tissue and significantly affect the subsequent yield of grapes. Growers almost universally combat the threat via an extensive network of overhead sprinklers that sprawl out across each row of grapes, dowsing them with a continuous coat of water. Water applied in this manner forms a protective layer of ice over the new growth and protects it from damage.

According to David Keller of Friends of the Eel River, citing a wine industry attorney with first-hand knowledge of the subject, there are roughly 32,000 acres of winegrapes in Sonoma County and Mendocino County that use this advanced industrial system of frost protection. A slight majority of that acreage — 16,400 acres — is located here in Mendo, perhaps the most frost- prone major grape growing area of California.

The upshot is as follows: Frost protection involves pumping of 50-55 gallons of water per minute for each acre of vineyard, depending on which estimate you believe. Thus, if every frost protection-dependent vineyard fires up its overhead sprinklers at once, as has no doubt happened numerous times over the years, that’s 770 million to 845 million gallons of water displaced over an eight-hour period — roughly the length of time of a typical “frost event.” The average household in water-starved Ukiah, by comparison, uses about .0000028 percent that amount daily.

As an illustration of how this enormous and virtually instantaneous demand on the river basin translates on the ground, consider the consequences it wrought in the spring of 2008. Water pumping by vineyards created a one-third reduction of water flow in the 10-mile segment of the Russian River from Ukiah to Hopland alone. All told, vineyards in the frost-prone areas of the basin sucked out a majority of the water flow in the section of the river that flows through that particular stretch of southern Mendocino and northern Sonoma counties. That was the year that the National Marine Fisheries Service finally leapt into action, documenting kills of endangered fish species and calling for new regulations on frost protection draws.

This past April 28, a member of the Marine Fisheries Service’s law enforcement division documented a fish stranding in the west fork Russian River near Redwood Valley, which the agency contends was a result of frost protection. The fisheries biologist, Dan Torquemada, found 21 stranded fish. Given Torquemada’s limited access to the river and its tributaries, it’s safe to conclude that these 21 fish casualties are representative of many, many more throughout the various reaches of the watershed. Similarly, officials estimate that 25,000 fish died from frost protection pumping in the Russian River basin in 2008 near Hopland alone, extrapolating from a similar discovery of numerous dead and stranded fish in the region.

The new frost protection regulations require that all such diversions, “including the pumping of hydraulically connected groundwater,” occur under the auspices of “board-approved water demand management program[s].” The board in question, which will be granting the approval, is of course the SWRCB.

The program entails a considerable amount of data gathering as to how much water the wine industry is diverting to sprinkle onto chilly grape buds, which vineyards are doing the diverting, and the specific hours the diversions occur. If the Control Board’s personnel determine that any growers have killed fish species listed under the Endangered Species Act, they will work with the growers to implement “corrective actions.” The “corrective actions” might include anything from “alternative methods for frost protection, best management practices, better coordination of diversions, construction of offstream storage facilities, real-time stream gage [sic] and diversion monitoring, or other alternative methods of diversion.”

Very little of the data the SWRCB gathers will be available in real-time. Rather, it will be released as part of a series of reports issued each year in September – several months after the frost season has ended. It does not require that frost water irrigators actually hold water rights, licenses, or permits for diversion. It does not make avoiding planting in frost-prone zones a requirement for permitting. It does not force grape growers to adhere to existing state policies to maintain stream flows in Northern California. It puts the burden of proof for proving harm to endangered fish on anyone who might find a fish carcass. Yet, only a tiny fraction of fish deaths are ever discovered. As the National Marine Fisheries Service pointed out, the small handful of fish it discovered around Hopland likely equated to around 25,000 dead fish in the vicinity.

The regulations were watered down as a result of lobbying by agribusiness, including grower organizations such as the The Wine Institute, the California Association of Winegrape Growers, Sonoma County Winegrape Association, and the regional Farm Bureaus. Agribusiness’ power was also on clear display when Sonoma County released its own frost water regulations in December, in an effort to preempt the anticipated stronger state regulations. The county’s version of frost protection restrictions were a product of secretive consultations between representatives of the SoCo Board of Supervisors and the wine aristocracy itself. It was designed to keep the power to regulate local water use squarely in the hands of those who are most responsible for the Russian River’s current plight: vineyard operators. A new non-profit organization called the Russian River Water Conservation Council, wholly composed of area grape growers, was formed to oversee the SoCo frost protection program.

Perhaps the most oft-quoted grower representative has been Pete Opatz, vineyard manager for Silverado Premium Partners, one of the largest industry players in Napa and Sonoma, with more than 5,000 acres of vineyards under cultivation in those North Bay counties alone. Although wine industry representatives have repeatedly promoted a storyline about being poorly-funded underdogs who are up against a consortium of extremely well-funded environmental organizations, little could be further from the truth, as Opatz’ allegiances alone amply demonstrate. Silverado Premium Partners’ early investors included Texas Pacific Group, the largest private equity firm in the world at present. Its current principal investors are Harvard University’s enormous endowment fund, entitled Harvard Management Company, and the $10 billion financial services firm John Hancock Insurance.

Other visible grower reps have included the regional vineyard managers of the world’s two largest wine corporations, E&J Gallo and Constellation Brands, whose names are, respectively Keith Horn and Scott Johnson. The aforementioned three individuals constituted three of the five members of the non-profit organization the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors authorized to oversee their frost protection program.

A fourth member of the board is of Rodney Strong Vineyads. Recall the role of Rodney Strong, as I outlined in my recent AVA piece “The Great Thirst and the North Coast.” It was Strong who, arguably more than any one person, was responsible for popularizing sprinkler-fed frost protection across the North Coast.

Putting such people in charge of supervising frost water diversions by the wine industry is akin to asking representatives of Exxon-Mobil, Chevron, and British Petroleum to oversee oil extraction on the Gulf Coast. They will now likely craft the “water management program” for Sonoma County grape growers, which it will be left to the SWRCB to approve.

Mendocino County grape growers, for their part, have hysterically complained that the modest restrictions on frost protection were fabricated out of a “conspiracy” by the SWRCB to promote their own agenda. The implication is that the agency is more interested in justifying its existence than in actually protecting its fish, and that it has arbitrarily chosen the wine industry as its target for victimization and blame. Yet, it is likely that as with the Sonoma County frost management plan, the Mendo growers will get most of what they want out of a plan they put before the SWRCB.

Ironically, the unhinged Mendo contingents’ allegations contain a kernel of truth. It’s true that the SWRCB is promoting its own agenda, whereby budgets and careers of regulatory agencies and political leadership thereof are pegged to success stories. The SWRCB can now come before the California State Legislature and trumpet its fashioning of a “balanced” solution to the frost protection crisis, which satisfied the demands both of the wine industry and of the so-called “conservation community” (a euphemism for Trout Unlimited and the few other environmental groups that support the regulations as written).

Yet, often the stated policy mandate is difficult or impossible to carry out given the power of countervailing interests – such as, in this case, the wine industry. The agencies all too easily lapse into the role of PR puppets, content to manufacture success stories as a means of concealing the utter failure of official policies. And insofar as meaningful protection of North Coast fish populations is concerned, the SWRCB’s official frost protection policy is, indeed, headed toward utter failure. ¥¥

(Will Parrish will give a presentation called “The Great Thirst: Water Wars In Mendo and the North Coast” this Thursday, September 29th, at the Spring House, 304 North Spring St., Ukiah, CA. The talk and follow-up discussion cover – and what we can do about it. For more information, email .)