Water Grab by Sonoma County, California’s Wine Empire

Santa Rosa, CA — An overflow crowd spilled into the lobby at California State Senator Mike McGuire’s August 13 promised Town Hall. Many were alarmed by an article at the top of the front-page of the prior day’s pro-wine industry local daily newspaper.

“Wine Industry’s ‘Water Grab’” headlined the Press Democrat (PD) story.

It described legislation being drafted that would secure unfair water rights and control of water for the wine industry in the Russian River watershed.

After listening to two articulate politicians and four staff members for nearly two hours, as the meeting was coming to a close, McGuire finally mentioned, in passing, that pending bill. These six speakers provided important information about parks, infrastructure, policing, and other subjects. But they did not address the elephant in the room — the main issue that many had come to discuss.

Authentic Town Halls are a great American tradition. At the ones this reporter covered in New England, politicians allowed ample time for townies to speak to them, not just ask brief questions. That was not the case with McGuire’s Town Hall, where the audience was spoken down to, until one woman demanded to be heard.

McGuire is a smart, skillful, and humorous politician who tightly controlled the meeting. The unexpectedly-large turnout indicates that a mass movement appears to be growing to challenge the Sonoma County Wine Empire’s excesses.

Constituents Express Disappointment

“I raised my hand numerous times, was never called on, had to leave at 8:40, and felt angry, a bit despondent, and stifled,” commented Pamela Singer of the four-county Wine and Water Watch (WWW).

This group of concerned environmentalist citizens from the adjacent at-risk Sonoma, Napa, Lake, and Mendocino counties has met monthly for half a year. Its mission:

We challenge the over-development of the wine tourism industry and promote ethical land and water use. We advocate agricultural practices that are ecologically regenerative.

“Mike McGuire gave little to no importance to the proposed bill by bringing it up at the meeting’s end, when people were tired, fed up, and ready to go home. I do not believe that he wants ‘both sides to come to the table,’” as he claims, WWW’s Singer added.

“Once again, a politician provided the public with obfuscation in order to not deal with or really hear what is important to citizens. Instead of hosting a real Town Hall, six folks spent two hours spewing out irrelevant statistics,” said Preserve Rural Sonoma County’s Reuben Weinsveg.

“McGuire acted like a TV game show host,” said WWW activist Ellen Zebrowski.

“The State Water Board ordered residential water users to cut back by 25% in four major Russian River tributary watersheds,” wrote Will Parrish in the July 29 AVA (Anderson Valley Advertiser), based in nearby Mendocino County. “The wine industry, which is the biggest cause of the decline of these creeks, does not have to cut back on water use.” How fair is that?

“The inherent unfairness of this order prompted roughly 1,000 outraged Sonomans to fill the halls at four Water Board meetings earlier this month,” Parrish added in his “Wine Industry Water Grab?” article, which introduced the term “water grab.”

Vineyards and wineries can currently take all the water from streams and their deep wells that they want, without enforceable regulations. This causes some streams to dry up, salmon and other fish to die, and rural wells to pump air when a vineyard moves in next door.

“A Robust Local Public Process”

The Wine Empire’s attempt to create and control a special Irrigation District was finally mentioned near the scheduled end of the meeting. A brave woman stood up and boldly demanded that the pending bill be addressed and that audience members be allowed to do more than ask brief questions, as McGuire held a microphone to their faces.

McGuire had asked for a “robust local public process,” so she gave it to him, opening the space for a real Town Hall on the issue that many people had come to address and patiently waited for their time to speak.

Sacramento attorney Peter Kiel wrote the bill’s draft, which would create a special Russian River Irrigation District to take over from state regulations and management. He sometimes works for three of the top ten wine corporations in the US—E&J Gallo, Constellation Brands, and Kendall-Jackson.

United Winegrowers executive director Bob Anderson presented that draft to McGuire, who claims to have sent it “to all interested parties.” But he only named one environmental group, the Russian Riverkeepers. Its executive director Don McEnhill is quoted in the PD article as saying that the draft “pretty much carved out a place for agriculture and didn’t address other users of water.”

The draft was not sent to other environmental groups, such as Sonoma County Conservation Action, Preserve Rural Sonoma County, and the four-county group Wine and Water Watch (WWW).

“McGuire neglected to include a very important stakeholder, the residential well owners. There are 20,000 well owners in Sonoma County,” noted Judith Olney, chair of the Westside Community Association Advisory Group.

Winegrowers moan and present themselves as victims. Anderson says the wine industry merely wants “a seat at the table.” They certainly deserve that, but not most of the seats, even though they have most of the money and most of the agricultural acreage, some of which has been paved over for their parking lots and wineries as event centers hosting weddings and other non-ag events.

Over 60,000 acres of the mono-crop wine grapes exists, with only about 12,000 acres of food crops in Sonoma County. The wine tourism/hospitality industry does not deserve that 6 to 1 ratio of seats at the table, even if they share their wealth with politicians.

The wine barons act as if they are wine stars and entitled; government officials treat them as if they were nobility. Meanwhile, politicians receive donations for their million-dollar campaigns to be elected and re-elected.

Starting with a bill drafted by Big Wine with its inherent conflict of interest is not the way to begin. In the interests of fairness, McGuire could have had his staff and advisors draft a bill that would then be vetted by neighborhood groups, ag interests, wine representatives, environmental groups, and water experts.  This would have been a balanced approach, rather than one weighted towards wine interests.

At least the current draft should be easily available, since it has been circulated to a few since March. McGuire said that it is not yet available online. So much for transparency and the inclusion of the public. We signed into the meeting, so he has our email addresses and easily could send out the draft, unless he has something to hide.

To his credit, Sen. McGuire committed himself as follows: “There is not going to be a bill unless a need is proven and a consensus is arrived at between agriculture and the environmentalists.” Time will tell. The growing mass movement will hold him to that commitment.

Shepherd Bliss (3sb@comcast.net) is a retired college teacher who has contributed to 24 books. Read other articles by Shepherd, or visit Shepherd's website.