Drinking Our Rivers Dry: The Wine Industry's Assault on Water Resources
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Editor's Note: For a water-friendly wine option, check out our recent storyon Frog's Leap Winery.
The latest in California’s North Coast wine oligarchy's long series of legislative coups de grace occurred on December 14. In a 5-0 vote, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors rubber-stamped new regulations on frost protection in the Russian River water basin, now in its death throes after having been continuously ravaged by several generations of extractive enterprise.
In recent decades, the once-simple act of protecting new bud growth on grape vines from frigid temperatures has become tantamount to a war on rivers. The predominantly corporate alcohol farmers who wield executive authority over the North Coast's land and politics almost universally combat frost damage via systems of overhead sprinklers that sprawl out across each row of grapes, dowsing them with a continuous coat of water on spring nights where local temperatures drop into the 20s.
Due to the sheer volume of water this advanced industrial system of frost management requires, the growers opt not to draw their water from wells – which would be harmful enough to the level of the water table – but instead pump straight from streams, creek, and rivers. According to an estimate by David Koball of Fetzer Vineyards of Mendocino County, a subsidiary of the multi-billion dollar multi-national alcohol conglomerate Brown-Forman, a 20-acre vineyard requires 1,000 gallons per minute for frost protection. There are more than 3,000 of these 20-acre swaths of wine-grapes in the Russian River basin alone (60,000 acres). In other words, roughly three million gallons of water per minute is drawn from this single river basin. The water is drawn for hours at a time, on as many as thirty separate occasions per year.
The frost protection period usually spans more than two months, from the time grapes come out of hibernation on around March 15, until the last frost date of late-spring: exactly when young fish, or "fry", emerge from their eggs. At this stage in their life cycle, the fish are especially susceptible to stranding, so they take refuge in cobble substrates. In the Russian River Basin, local residents have long observed dead fry stranded in the days immediately following so-called “frost events,” as well as the older fish, known as “smolts.”
Sonoma County's new ordinance is 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, would oversee the frost protection program.
Sebastopol organic farmer Shepherd Bliss, a psychology professor at Sonoma State University and long-time critic of industrial viticulture's local economic dominance, has rightly equated this state of affairs with a fox regulating chicken production in a henhouse.
In an ostensible effort to monitor the amount of water siphoning occurring for frost protection, as many as 100 stream flow gauges will be placed in the Russian River and its feeder streams. Few if any of these gauges, however, would provide live data – that is, data that would actually prove useful in limiting damage to the river. Instead, the information would be available after the fact, in the summer or beyond.
These would-be restrictions on the wine industry's ability to deplete local watersheds with their accustomed impunity were largely written by members of the regional wine aristocracy itself, in secretive consultations with their associates in the Sonoma County bureaucracy. The text of the regulations had been in the works for months. Yet, County officials refused to divulge any of the substance of their plans until October, after local environmentalists filed a California Public Records Act.