Wineries, fisherman seek compromise in North Coast water dispute

Does wine go with salmon? This might sound like an appetizing question. But it's serious business on the North Coast of California, where wineries and fishermen have fought for years over limited flows of fresh water.

Representatives of both industries testified at a joint hearing in St. Helena on Wednesday called by the Senate and Assembly Select Committees on Wine. They were hoping to get the ear of State Water Resources Control Board, which is in charge of implementing a 4-year-old law designed to protect the fish. AB 2121, passed in 2004, ordered Water Resources to figure out and maintain the flows needed to maintain salmon, trout and other fish in the rivers of the North Coast region covering Humboldt, Marin, Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma counties.

Fights between farmers and fishermen over water are nothing new in California. At first glance, wineries might appear to be one of the best kinds of agriculture to be near fisheries. Wine grapes use relatively little water, noted Tim Schmelzer, a lobbyist for the industry-sponsored Wine Institute.

"One of the things that different about growing grapes, as opposed to say, tomatoes, you're going it for the intensity of the flavor of the grape," Schmelzer said. "You don't want to over-water."

When vintners do need water, it's often to spray down the vines in the winter to insulate them against frost-a time when rains usually keep the rivers flowing. However, Brian Johnson, an attorney with Trout Unlimited, said the low per acre water use for grapes is offset by the sheer size of a wine industry that has coated much of the region with vineyards.

"In many parts of the North Coast, wine grapes are the dominant land use," Johnson said. "It's the cumulative effect of many small diversions that wouldn't by themselves be a big deal."

Trout Unlimited sponsored AB 2121. Johnson said the group was on guard against any changes in the draft policy that could result the minimum flows for fish being cut off.

The Wine Institute, meanwhile, is pushing for a more flexible "watershed" approach. Under the system they envision, Schmelzer said, farmers would have to do a lot more work in their initial water applications, both in order to justify their needs and address how they would mitigate for the water they're taking out. In return, he said, farmers could get some movement on the nearly 300 water use permits they currently have in front on Water Resources. Some of these have been pending for years.

"Those that have their permits are good to go, those who don't…there will be no new vineyards," Schmelzer said. "It will inhibit the ability of my industry to expand at all."

In the meantime, Johnson said that the state has estimated there are nearly 1,800 farmers taking water illegally. He said he understands the position that many of these growers are in.

"We'd like to have a system that would bring those people into the fold, and also doesn't punish people who are playing by the rules," Johnson said. "I don't think the average farmer likes the idea of operating illegally."

One thing the farmers have liked is the healthy growth of their industry. With some of their products selling for over $100 a bottle, Schmelzer said wineries can get very high per-acre returns. Even with a bad economy cutting into their numbers, the industry experienced double-digit growth last year. Meanwhile, Trout Unlimited and salmon fisherman have been running a campaign to encourage people to save wild salmon by eating them. By encouraging people to choose wild catch over farmed fish-which have been the subject of recent health and environmental concerns-the industry is hoping to improve its own financial health, help fund conservation efforts, and gin up attention around fisheries.

Both Johnson and Schmelzer said they believed Water Resources could arrive at rules that would take care of both industries.
"I don't think there are fundamental conflicts between fish needs and agricultural needs in this part of the world," Johnson said. "It's a matter of coordination."

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