Clarksburg Grapegrowers Fear Water Proposals

California Delta Council meets in vineyard region for first time

by Jon Tourney
Delta Stewardship Council
North Delta residents and families created a "Welcome DSC" banner for the Delta Stewardship Council meeting held at the Old Sugar Mill winery complex in Clarksburg last week.
Clarksburg, Calif. -- Clarksburg area grapegrowers and others representing Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta agricultural families dating back to the 1800s asked members of the Delta Stewardship Council (DSC) to consider the Delta's cultural history and agricultural contributions when making future decisions, at a meeting held last week at the Old Sugar Mill winery complex in Clarksburg.

The DSC, created by the California Legislature's special session water legislation last November, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Reform Act of 2009 (SB X7 1), is the successor to the California Bay-Delta Authority, and the CALFED Bay-Delta Program. The DSC is charged with preparing and adopting a Delta Plan by Jan. 1, 2012, to guide state and local actions in the Delta, with an overall purpose of achieving the co-equal goals of providing a more reliable water supply for California and restoring and enhancing the Delta ecosystem.

The DSC, which held its first meeting in Sacramento in April (see W&V Headlines article April 2, 2010), is required to hold two meetings a year in the Delta region. Last week's meeting was the first time the new body met in the Delta, providing opportunity for local elected officials, residents, farmers and grapegrowers to highlight the area's values and express concerns about water project proposals that could threaten current operations and lifestyles.

Prior to preparing a Delta Plan, the DSC is required to complete an Interim Plan with early action recommendations. A second draft of the Interim Plan was reviewed and discussed at the meeting. A third and final Interim Plan draft will be completed for possible approval in August by the DSC. Simultaneously, another planning effort that started in 2008 as a collaboration among state, federal and local water agencies has been preparing the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) with a final plan expected in 2012.  The DSC Delta Plan is required to evaluate and incorporate other planning efforts going on in the state, including the BDCP.

Water conveyance projects

Members of the Clarksburg Wine Growers and Vintners Association and North Delta CARES (Community Area Residents for Environmental Stability) have been closely following the BDCP and feel threatened by that plan's current proposals for water conveyance projects to move water south for Central Valley farms and Southern California residents. Proposed routes for a Delta Peripheral Canal and an alternative underground pipeline would go through the vineyards of several Clarksburg grapegrowers and could remove swaths of farmland from 1,000 to 1,500 feet wide. 

During public comments, Judy Serpa, who owns and operates Dantone Vineyards with husband Daniel Serpa, explained that their property has been farmed by family members going back eight generations to 1849. Today, the Serpas grow Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc that is sold to Gallo, Beringer and Sutter Home. A proposed canal and pipeline route passes through their vineyards.

In 2009, the Serpas received a letter from the Department of Water Resources asking for access into their vineyards to do surveys, drill holes and dig test trenches up to 20 feet long and 12 feet deep, some of which would remove producing vines. The Serpas are among 170 landowners of Delta area properties who have refused to allow state officials onto their lands to perform surveys and testing. The issue is part of an ongoing court case being heard in Stockton. Serpa said, "My husband would be here, but he doesn't have the patience. He can't understand why the state would take away land and farming operations where his family has been since before California became a state."

Yolo County Supervisor Mike McGowan, who represents the Clarksburg area, pointed out the importance of grape growing and the wine industry to the regional economy, and that the Old Sugar Mill was a symbol of the area's adaptability and a move toward the future. The Sugar MiIl was originally built in the 1930s to process sugar from sugar beets, formerly a major crop in the region. The mill closed in 1993 and was empty until 2000 when developers began restoring and adapting the complex for wine production, tasting rooms and events.

The Clarksburg Wine Co. operates custom crush services at the facility and will introduce its own releases in 2011. Other wineries producing and selling wines at the complex are Carvalho Family Wines, Heringer Estates, Todd Taylor Wines, Three Wine Co. and The Solomon Wine Co.  

County supervisor wants certainty
McGowan noted that uncertainties regarding water project proposals, flood map zoning being done by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and other uncompleted planning efforts create uncertainty that impedes residential and business development, vineyard and winery development and expansion, and can even impact long-term grape contracts.  "We need to get to a point of certainty and get the rules of the game established," McGowan said. "This is our future in this area, and we need economic sustainability and certainty for the future of the wine and grape industry," McGowan said.

Stephen Heringer, with Heringer Holland Land & Farming Co., grows 120 acres of premium wine grapes and produces and sells Heringer Estates wines at the Old Sugar Mill. He is the fifth of six generations in his family to farm in the Clarksburg area. He said the Clarksburg American Viticultural Area (AVA) has 17,000 acres planted in premium winegrapes representing an estimated $340 million in development investment by area growers. Heringer told the panel, "We respectfully request that you consider the Delta as a place, with all its people, its agriculture and its economy, in all of your plans and decisions."

Although Heringer's vineyards would not be impacted by currently proposed water conveyance projects, he shares a concern with all local residents about moving more water south from the Delta, as it could impact the Delta ecosystem, increase salinity intrusion from San Francisco Bay, and reduce available water supply for Delta farmers and residents. Many residents do not oppose through-Delta water transfer, as occurs now with pumping water from the south end of the Delta region. However, they support only the export of water that is in excess of the present and future human and environmental needs of the Delta region.

Threats to business and lifestyle

The BDCP also includes habitat conservation and restoration projects that concern some growers and farmers such as Heringer, who could be required to give up or alter producing acreage for such projects. In short, Clarksburg growers and residents consider the BDCP a threat to their businesses and lifestyles, and feel the BDCP members have not listened to their concerns. They are skeptical of the planning process but have some hope that the DSC may show more consideration as it develops its Delta Plan, and will consider other alternatives for water supply for Californians south of the Delta.

As designed by the 2009 legislation, the DSC is expected to operate with more independence and authority than previous bodies, and is authorized to serve as an appellate body to determine if a state or local agency's project in the Delta is consistent with the Delta Plan. In addition, the legislation addresses statewide water conservation through management plans by urban and agricultural water suppliers with the goal of reducing statewide per capita water consumption 20% by 2020, and for the first time in state history, requires that local agencies monitor groundwater levels.

Funding sources for new water conveyance infrastructure, conservation and restoration projects, and even levee improvements that most parties agree are necessary, are also an issue with uncertainty. An $11 billion statewide water bond issue was originally scheduled for the November 2010 ballot to fund these Delta projects. State officials are considering postponing the bond until a 2012 ballot vote. Given the recession and ongoing state budget deficit, officials believe this additional spending (more state debt) would have trouble being approved by voters in this year's current economic and political climate.

More information on the DSC, Delta information, policies, and the Interim Plan Draft is at deltacouncil.ca.gov.
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