“Brave the storm to come, for it surely looks like rain.” – 1972, Look Like Rain, Grateful Dead
Rain, water, drought, shortage, rationing, voluntary reductions, mandatory reductions; Thoughts of our current situation swirl like water about a drain. I’m a winery tasting room guy. I know finished wine, whether it is good, what notes it has and how to describe it. I know a little bit about growing and winemaking, but really just the basics.
When it comes to the crisis facing everyone in Mendocino County, not just the vineyards and wineries, I had to reach out and talk with some folks more knowledgeable than I am on the subject. I spoke with Zac Robinson, President of the Mendocino WineGrowers, Inc., the voluntary coalition of growers and producers working to promote Mendocino County grape grower and wine interests to the general public. Robinson grows grapes both inland, on the Russian River between Ukiah and Hopland, and in the Anderson Valley, and then turns them into wine for his winery, Husch Vineyard.
Robinson described the problems facing the entire community as stemming from a two year drought, stating “the Navarro River is at the lowest level ever for this date, and “things are pretty dire.” Robinson outlined measures that vineyards and wineries are taking in the face of water shortages including adding nearly 50 new wind machines, installing double drip irrigation lines, and installing soil moisture monitoring probes. This is on top of water use reductions of approximately 67 percent since the previous drought of record, 1976-77.
The fans minimize the use of sprinkler water for frost protection and later to mitigate the highest heat of summer, but at a cost as the fans are pretty noisy for residential neighbors to endure. Soil moisture monitoring probes allow more intelligent application of moisture as needed, and double drip lines involve a second irrigation drip line with emitters tasked only to the weakest vines in a vineyard. Double drip lines allow about a 30 percent reduction in water as regular summer drip irrigation can be delayed for weeks as only the vines most in need are taken care of earlier. Later pruning also reduces water demands, as it leads to later bud break and decreases the period when frost protection water use might occur.
In spite of all of the efforts by growers, Robinson shared that “holding ponds aren’t full, the watershed is bone dry, and there will be August decisions (as) we’re not going to have enough water to get the crop through the year (and) we’ll have to choose which vineyards get less water.”
All this, while most of Mendocino County’s vineyards face 50 percent mandatory reductions in water use from various governing boards and agencies.
Not to demonize the “demon weed,” but marijuana accounts for nearly the same water use amount of all of the family farmed multi-generational vineyards in the county, with marijuana acreage just a small fraction of the legal and regulated agricultural vineyards. A walk in a vineyard is a joy; a walk in much of the county a danger due to illegal growth, armed guards, booby-trapped paths, and poisoned lands.
I’m not anti-marijuana, but I support legalizing and taxing it, as well as subjecting growers to the same water restrictions grape growers face. I do oppose illegal grows on public land, diverting water, and ruining existing ecosystems. While vineyards may be the most visible sector of the agricultural community, non-vineyard agriculture (irrigated pastures and orchards) are the largest user of water in the county, using water at much greater rates per acre.
This piece isn’t meant to be an “us vs. them” piece, but a look at where we all are at, together, now and where we all should be looking to go to decrease the severity of drought consequences as a community in the future. Janet Pauli, Chair of the Mendocino County Inland Water & Power Commission, was able to provide a pretty good map for the future.
Pauli first made clear the severity of our current drought, based on insufficient rain October to present, “this is the new drought of record’ and may be a level of severity that hasn’t occurred in over 400 years based on tree ring data.” This surpasses the often recounted 1976-77 drought of record. Pauli said the path forward required progress on two tracks. The first is reoperation and the second is increased storage at Lake Mendocino.
Reoperation involves support of Congressman Jared Huffman’s Fixing Operations of Reservoirs to Encompass Climatic and Atmospheric Science Trends Act (FORECAST) so we can conserve water in our biggest pond, Lake Mendocino. Currently, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers follow required water control instructions from a manual dating back to the 50s, which saw them release water in the spring of 2013 without any evidence of a storm coming in after. Assuming weather prediction is better now than in the 50s, sensible on-the-ground decisions could be made saving unnecessary future water releases from occurring.
Lake Mendocino exists as part of a larger U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flood control project, authorized by Congress in the 50s, and intended to proceed in three stages. Stage one was the building of the Coyote Valley Dam, completed in 1959, creating the current Lake Mendocino. Stage two involved the building of the Warm Springs Dam, completed in 1982, creating Lake Sonoma. Stage three involves coming back to raise the Coyote Valley Dam 36 vertical feet, doubling the water storage capacity of Lake Mendocino. Stage three has not happened. Pauli said that feasibility studies are costly, but needed to move forward and while $1.2 million has been brought to bear, $4 million more is needed to see the study through to completion. Funding comes from the Federal government, matched by a local coalition including Potter Valley, Redwood Valley, Mendocino County, City of Ukiah, and Russian River Flood Control groups. Next congressional action is required, and Pauli said that in the past U.S. Senator (CA) Diane Feinstein “has helped us with funding for the Feasibility Study. We believe that the project is feasible and should be championed by our elected representatives as nearly “shovel ready”. We are hoping that raising Coyote Dam might become the “water supply poster child” for increasing storage in the State of California.”
If feasible, the current estimate of enlarging Lake Mendocino is $300 million, with perhaps 25 percent local funding needed, and would require a year for authorization plus whatever time the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would need to enlarge the existing dam. Similarly, Congressman Huffman’s FORECAST Act requires successful passage into law, a couple of years of studies, and another couple of years before implementation. The greatest problem about droughts is that with their end, so too ends the quest for solutions to drought conditions.
Everyone in Mendocino, Sonoma Counties face drought conditions now and should come together to act now and continue to act together in the future as a community to address ways to minimize the impacts of future droughts. According to Mendocino WineGrowers, Inc., farmers in the wine industry and wineries relying on grapes anticipate losses of up to $100 million this year due to the drought and a combination of mandatory and self-imposed responsible water reduction measures. Grapes just won’t be as plump, there will be fewer and this will lead to less wine made. Do whatever you can to conserve water now. I remember the conservation measures that existed in 1976-77 that are not in effect in homes now.
Support your local, legal, agriculture; help them through this drought by taking on extra water conservation measures at your home and business, and contact Congressman Jared Huffman and voice your support for his FORECAST Act, and contact Senator Diane Feinstein and let her know you would really love to see the Coyote Valley Dam raised 36 vertical feet as soon as practical. Consider your local city councilmember’s and county supervisor’s support for these needed protections of our beautiful county as well. As Mendocino County residents, we’re really in this together.