Wine Trumps Salmon in War Over Water


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

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Carole R.
Carole R.4 years ago

Interesting. Thanks for the post.

Cheryl M. D.
Cheryl Dare4 years ago

Alcoholics unite! Go sober!

Lilithe Magdalene

BTW - to those portraying all Californians as selfish uncaring "nuts", don't paint us all with the same brush. There are many different people who live out here, and we tend to be some of the most conservation minded people around. AND just like anywhere, we are plagued by corporate interests. Don't just boycott California wines, boycott BIG California vineyards like Beringer, Sutter Home, Gallo, Franzia, etc. Many of these wineries are subsidiaries of companies like Procter and Gamble and Coca Cola. Here is the site with the big names. You would not recognize their umbrella company names, but read through and you'll recognize the individual wines.

It's about conscious consumership, not blind buying or boycotting. Support small, local biodynamic wineries!

Lilithe Magdalene

I live two valleys over from Sonoma Co., and it is disappointing to see Sonoma Co, which is famous for it's environmental attitudes and preservation minded communities, try to compete with the hoity toity Napa Valley which you know is gobbling up water, and dumping chemicals right and left (I don't care how pretty the valley is, there are very few organic/biodynamic wineries in the region, and I know it is becoming a toxic cesspool). I do have faith that the sensibilities of people who want Sonoma Co. to stay focused on conservation will win the day - they usually do.

One of the biggest culprits is Beringer Wines - their vineyards are EVERYWHERE, and they have this very foreboding energy about them. No matter what remote little valley I drive through in Lake, Napa or Sonoma County, I almost always come across their plantings. Boycott Beringer! And research other wineries they may own - I just recently became aware that these little mom and pop wineries and vineyards have all been bought up by the big boys like Beringer, Sutter Home, etc. and they care little for the environment - just looking wealthy and making money. It's disgusting.

I like a good glass of red wine as much as the next person, but I do my best to buy organic, and from local wineries that are doing it right. We have a local bio-dynamic winery in Lake Co called Beaver Creek Winery - owned by some delightful gents from Czechoslovakia, and I love the way they operate. Support them!!

Christine S.

I think we should ban LAWNS- that would leave enough water for both vineyards and salmon!

Marie W.
Marie W.4 years ago

Wildlife and biodiversity be given the more consideration!

Isabel Araujo
Isabel Araujo4 years ago

Nature first, profits last!

Gianna M.
Gianna Macias4 years ago

Actually wildlife should be ABSOLUTE NUMBER ONE.

Ernie Miller
william Miller4 years ago

part of farming is loss do to frost hail and other natural desasters. farmers need to learn to deal with it and leave the water for the fish. Irrigation needs to be strictly limited

Ernest R.
Ernest R.4 years ago

My guess is that this is pushed by vegans who don't want people to eat fish. Good job.