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Some Napa and Sonoma vineyard owners under new rule for storm water runoff


A new regulation aimed at improving the water quality of two tributaries that run into San Pablo Bay means vineyard owners in those watersheds will have to obtain new permits under more rigorous guidelines for their storm water runoff.

In approving the new rule last month, members of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board said they were concerned that vineyards could be discharging sediment and pesticides into the watershed that would, among other things, trigger erosion and threaten fish habitat.

Under the rule, land owners in the Sonoma Creek and the Napa River watersheds will be under three different levels of monitoring, from those who are largely adhering to the best environmental practices that have been certified by a third-party organization to those that will fall under more stringent oversight because they would have to make significant changes to management of their property.

The board did not say how many vineyard owners would be affected, but the rule would cover about 40 percent of the total land in both watersheds, representing about 59,000 planted acres. Those with fewer than 5 acres of vineyards would be exempted.

The wine industry was largely rebuffed in its push for major changes from a proposed draft issued by the board last year. Vintners estimate that it could cost from $5,000 to $7,000 to develop a farm plan to obtain the new permit, and the total could significantly rise to much more if they are ordered to make changes to their properties, such as retrofitting an unpaved road or monitoring water quality.

Local growers will not immediately know how much the rule will ultimately cost them, said Bob Anderson, executive director for the United Winegrowers for Sonoma County. His group argued to the board that local regulations, such as requirements for setbacks and grass buffers, have addressed and corrected many of the water quality issues in the watershed area in Sonoma Creek.

“Our focus is now to educate members on the new requirements and hope that it goes smoothly,” Anderson said.

One regional environmental group said the rule was needed a long time ago.

“We believe the final rule approved by the regional board was a good first step and was overdue,” said Sejal Choksi-Chugh, executive director for San Francisco Baykeeper, a nonprofit group dedicated to fighting pollution in San Francisco Bay, which connects with San Pablo Bay.

Her group has reservations about pesticides that are part of the runoff into the watersheds, noting a UC Berkeley study showed farm chemicals have been detected in the Napa River. The environmental group is concerned that the pesticides are having an impact on fish in the watershed, noting in particular the increase of male chinook salmon who are feminizing and developing eggs.

“That to us means we need to find the source of it and stop it,” Choksi-Chugh said.

Many local vineyard owners have already been voluntarily certified as environmental stewards through third-party organizations, such as Fish Friendly Farming, established by the California Land Stewardship Institute. That program was designed in the late 1990s to help local growers comply with federal and state environmental regulations.

But Molly Moran, industry and community relations manager at the Napa Valley Grapegrowers trade group, said such certification is no guarantee that land owners will not have to adhere to additional requirements under the new permitting process.

For some land owners, the rule is just another burden imposed upon them by a government bureaucracy. Tito Sasaki, member of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau board of directors, said he will be subject to the new permitting system because his 50-acre vineyard property is in the watershed, located in the Sonoma Valley and Carneros wine regions. He noted the use of pesticides is already heavily regulated by both the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Pesticide Regulation.

“For us, there is no need for another agency to get involved,” Sasaki said.