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Watershed Protection Alliance Founded To Deal With Hillside Vineyards
By Shepherd Bliss, Sonoma Group Agriculture-Wetlands Chair
A coalition of community and environmental groups began meeting regularly last October to consider erosion control and related issues caused by the expanding number of hillside vineyards and to carefully craft an appropriate response. The new Sonoma County Watershed Protection Alliance (WPA) has evolved from those meetings. Initiated by the Sierra Club's Sonoma Group, under the leadership of David Bannister, and the Sonoma County Conservation Action (SCCA), led by Mark Green. The meetings have included members of more than a dozen Sonoma County environ-mental, community, and agricultural groups, listed at the end of this article.
"Oak trees and wildlife habitat are being ripped out to make way for grapes on slopes that are frequently too steep, causing erosion, loss of essential habitat for wildlife, and loss of our beautiful hills," according to a recent issue of SCCA News. "Other than requiring a grading permit, the county has no regulations to manage these practices and protect our resources!" A woman attending a WPA meeting who lives in the Dry Creek grape region outside Healdsburg commented, "I feel as if we are living in a logging camp with all the big Gallo Winery trucks taking out the clear cut timber."
WPA meetings at the Environ-mental Center in Santa Rosa have included guest speakers from Napa Conty reporting on the successes and failures of their hillside ordinance and Sonoma County Supervisor Mike Reilly providing a map of the political terrain. The group has discussed the wine industry's preference for voluntary guidelines and peer review; the new Fish Friendly Farming Project, funded partially by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); and how the listing of coho salmon and steelheads as threatened under the Endangered Species Act might influence this effort.
Grapegrower and winemaker, Marty Griffin, circulated photographs documenting the problems being created by hillside vineyards. Two other grapegrowers, Terry Harrison of Community Alliance with Family Farmers and George Davis of Friends of the Twin Valley, have been active with WPA. They have educated WPA members about the wine industry. Davis, for example, has pointed out that "the best grapes are grown on hillsides."
Part of the group's focus has been to get a hillisde ordinance, though others have been concerned with the long-term issues of educating the public on the wine industry. WPA has explored placing an ordinance on the November, l998 ballot. Recognizing the mounting public concern with the vineyards and the growing coalition to challenge them, the Sonoma County Grape Growers Association and United Winegrowers for Sonoma County invited ten members of the fledgling WPA on a November 8 tour of one of Gallo's vineyards and a stream resotration project. Also attending were Farm Bureau members, Sonoma County Supervisor Paul Kelly, who appears to oppose a hillside vineyard ordinance like Napa County has, and Mike Reilly, who favors an ordinance similar to Napa County's.
Rick Theis, Executive Director of the Grape Growers Association, reported in the Farm Bureau News, "While nothing was resolved, everyone attending the field trip seemed pleased that a dialogue had begun among farmers and environ-mentalists on this issue."
Twelve representatives of the wine industry, twelve WPA members, and a hired facilitator met on December 12. At that meeting a wine industry representative admited the "inevitability of a hillside vineyard ordinance." So, in mid-January a smaller team from both sides sat down to begin writing such an ordinance.
WPA's two primary issues in the ordinance are l) loss of biotic resources/ wildlands/ habitat for native plants and animals and biodiversity, and 2) erosion and impacts on water quality and soil conservation resulting from development for agricultural uses, roads, homes, and timber harvest plans. These concerns include issues such as riparian zone protection, recontouring slopes, and viewsheds/aesthetics. Other issues are pesticide use and the development of a winegrape monoculture.
At the December meeting the wine industry expressed concern with the right to farm, private property, government regulations and the economic impact on landowners. They also spoke of what one winemaker described as "the problem person, the cowboy" who plants a vineyard poorly, creating erosion and other problems. For example, Kenneth Wilson is currently facing fines into the millions of dollars from the North Coast Regional Water Quality Board for tons of sediment state regulators say washed from his vineyard into the Gualala River. Water run-off down a hillside on his property left ditches six feet deep and eight feet wide.
Joan Vilms of Friends of the Russian River articulated a need for "a land ethic with peer pressure and the use of shame at doing damage." (The WPA is currently raising money to hire Vilms to help write the ordinance.) The wine industry advocated an ombudsman, monitor or mentor from each watershed to watch over vineyard developments. A grapegrower admited, "We do need environmental education within the agricultural community." Environmentalists present agreed that we need education about agriculture.
The WPA includes members from the following major environmental groups: Audubon Society, California Native Plant Society, Friends of the Russian River, Russian River Watershed Protection Council, Earth First! and Community Alliance with Family Farmers. Also included are individuals from groups with a singular focus, such as Friends of Twin Valley which is challenging Gallo, and Graton Alliance to Stop Pollution (GASP) which is struggling with Associated Vintage Group's massive expansion. Members of other groups attending WPA meetings include Blucher Creek Watershed Council, Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, and Cunningham Marsh Preservation Committee.
For further information contact:
Shepherd Bliss, (707) 829-8185,
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Last updated on 2/21/98
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