Vineyards wrap the hills and march in straight lines along the highways and side roads of California’s wine country. Sonoma Countyalone draws visitors from around the world.
That is where the problem lies. Forests of oak, Douglas fir and redwood once anchored the soil and helped create a healthy habitat for coho salmon. Then logging cleared space for agriculture. Orchards gave way to vineyards. As the wine industry expands its reach in Sonoma County, more wildlife corridors are disrupted, and biodiversity is lost. Endangered coho and threatened steelhead trout compete for water with thirsty vines.
Writing in the New York Times (an article reposted on The Bay Citizen Web site), Jacoba Charles describes the struggle pitting the wine industry against fish. Permits for new wineries continually expand the acreage planted in vines. What is missing in the process is adequate assessment of water supplies or environmental impact.
Area residents and environmentalists report levels in streams and wells fluctuate as vineyards draw down water for irrigation. A new method to reduce losses from frost “involves spraying plants with 50 gallons of water per acre, per minute.” Nearby tributaries sometimes run dry.
One group objecting to the spreading vineyards is Friends of the Gualala River, who argue vineyards are environmentally disastrous and their water use unsustainable. They point to a long-established vineyard in Annapolis that tried dry farming. When yields proved unprofitable, the operation returned to irrigation. The Friends group writes, “When it comes to grape and wine, water = profit.”
Work is underway to consider a more integrated approach. The U.S. Geological Society’s California Water Science Center collected data from the Sonoma Valley and found a “fairly small” 9 percent decrease in water storage, along with localized water-level declines. The Sonoma County Water Agency is currently seeking public input “on proposed strategies for addressing long-term water supply problems presented by regulatory requirements, endangered species and changing weather conditions.”
Agriculture needs water. The wine industry needs water. Fish need water. The supply is, however, finite. The fish were there first, but in the competition for profits, they are first to lose out. Sonoma County is a small dot in the global water picture, but decisions made there can be models for responsible water management or for continual drawing down of an essential public resource.
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Photo from Deb Harkness via Flickr Creative Commons