Turning Water into Wine 

The unregulated growth of California's wine industry in the state's coastal regions is depleting groundwater supplies and devastating rivers and fisheries.

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Along the border of Sonoma and Napa counties, roughly seven miles northeast of Santa Rosa, hydrologist and forester Jim Doerksen took me to the southeastern end of his house, where he has scrawled annual rainfall totals on his laundry room wall for more than thirty years. It was an early-spring morning, and fog had draped the redwoods and Doug firs in a ghostly gray on the north-facing slope above Doerksen's home.

In the 2005–06 rain year, Doerksen's gauge recorded 98 inches of precipitation. Yet, the water level that year in Mark West Creek — a tributary of the Russian River, historically known for its thrashing, silvery surges of salmon and trout — had declined by more than half.

The realization that his beloved creek was drying up, even in a wet year, remains clearly etched in Doerksen's mind a decade later. As a former staff hydrologist for Santa Clara County, Doerksen is also keenly aware of what happened. He explained that the depletion of an underground aquifer, which feeds the creek, caused it to run dry.

"A fractured-bedrock aquifer lies beneath this part of the Mayacamas Mountain range, dispensing water through pores ... in the sub-surface rock," he said. "When the groundwater level drops below these pores, the aquifer ceases to dispense — you end up with a dry creek."

On the northwestern edge of Doerksen's property, a sign strung to a tree describes this problem even more succinctly and identifies the culprit: "Vineyards SUCK! Water."

Historically, much of California's wine industry had been centered in the Central Valley. But by the latter part of the 20th century, the notion that the distinct character of a particular vineyard is expressed through the wines produced from it had become a popular notion among American wine drinkers. Grape growers responded by touting coastal ridgetop vineyards as boasting California's best terroir. And so corduroy-like rows of grapes marched up hillsides in California's northern and central coastal areas.

The growth of hillside vineyards was a free-for-all. "When it comes to agriculture, there's no statewide regulation that prevents oak woodland and chaparral fragmentation and habitat loss," explained Adina Merenlender, a UC Berkeley Cooperative Extension specialist in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management who has studied the conversion of woodlands to vineyards in Sonoma County. "It's discouraging."

In upper Mark West Creek, the conversion to vineyards started with the owner of a multimillion-dollar dentistry consulting business in Marin County — named Pride — that installed eighty acres of grapes on a ridgetop where oaks had previously stood. The next person to plant a ridgetop vineyard in the area was Fred Fisher, an heir to the General Motors fortune. The coup de grace occurred when Henry Cornell, an investment banker from Goldman Sachs in New York City, purchased 120 acres and clear-cut the forests on his property to make way for a vineyard and winery.

The removal of anchoring vegetation activated a landslide, causing 10,000 cubic feet of soil to wash into the creek during a winter storm in 2006. In the next few years, Doerksen watched as the spawning pools that run through his property filled with sediment. The creek became lifeless.

It was a cruel turn of events. After Doerksen had purchased his five hundred-acre property in 1967, he had removed exotic annual grasses, shrubs, fruit orchards, and tangles of brush where old vineyards had been, replacing them with redwood trees and Doug firs. By the early 2000s, visitors from the American Forestry Foundation told him that more timber per acre was growing on his land than anywhere they knew of in North America. And, as he fastidiously nursed the land back to health, the watershed's abundance had also increased.

In the 1980s, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (then called "Fish and Game") conducted a long-term study of Mark West Creek fishery habitat and concluded that the stretch running through the Doerksens' ranch was perhaps the most ideal spawning area for coho salmon in all of Sonoma County. Mature redwood forests are extremely efficient at enhancing groundwater retention and of capturing enormous quantities of water from the air through a process known as "fog drip."

With much the same zeal that Doerksen applied to his yeoman forestry work, he and many of his neighbors set out to stop the ridgetop vineyards from destroying the creek. But they soon discovered that the state's regulatory system is tilted strongly in favor of vineyard developers, and that the wine industry is a distinct but powerful player in the state's influential agribusiness lobby, which has warded off most regulation of its activities, including those that impact California's water supplies and the health of the state's increasingly fragile rivers and fisheries.


As California enters its fourth year of what some commentators have dubbed the Great Drought, the power of California's agribusiness sector has been vividly on display. Governor Jerry Brown recently mandated that cities slash water consumption this year by 25 percent compared to 2013 levels. But he spared agribusiness — even though it uses roughly 80 percent of California's developed water supply — from any cutbacks. In an interview on ABC News, Brown defended his decision, saying that California farmers "are not taking longer showers or watering their lawns. They are growing most of the fruits and vegetables of America."

The power of agribusiness has mystified many commentators in the state, in part because crop production only accounts for about 2 percent of California's total economic output. Agriculture, though, involves far more than the sale of crops to distributors. It also involves "finishing" the products, such as processing tomatoes into ketchup or pasta, and then canning them. And it involves transporting crops to markets throughout the world. Agricultural products, for example, accounted for nearly half of the total value of exports leaving the Port of Oakland in 2013.

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