Bill eases growers’ creation of ponds

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A move by two North Coast legislators to speed up the approval process for small farm irrigation ponds has earned the support of rival factions in the region’s water wars and is now one step away from becoming law.

The legislation by Democratic Assemblymen Jared Huffman of San Rafael and Wes Chesbro of Arcata would establish a quicker track for growers applying to divert winter and spring-time stream flows into small storage ponds used for irrigation. The bill, AB 964, was headed to the governor’s office for a final signature.

North Coast growers and stream advocates see off-stream ponds as a key way to capture peak river flows for use during drier months or during cold snaps, when the region’s grape and fruit growers spray water on their crops to protect them from frost.

The ponds also help growers avoid diverting water en masse directly from streams during those cold or dry periods. Such concentrated diversions, federal officials say, have caused sharp drawdowns in streams and been responsible for fish kills in recent years.

Growers have disputed that link, while environmentalists have increasingly heaped blame on the diversions as a key cause of the region’s diminished salmon and steelhead runs.

Some of the same factions have come together, however, to endorse Huffman and Chesbro’s bill. The narrow consensus stems from an agreement that getting more growers to use off-stream ponds can help minimize their impact on streams.

“This is one where everyone agrees,” said Huffman. He worked with the Wine Institute, a trade and lobbying group, and Trout Unlimited, the national conservation group, in crafting the legislation.

The consensus over the legislation is a rare one in the sharp debate over how best to use and manage the North Coast’s rivers.

It also is a momentary reprieve in a fight soon to heat up over growers’ water diversions for frost protection in the Russian River watershed.

The State Water Resources Control Board is set to take up that contentious issue later this month. It has proposed to make spring-time diversions in most of the watershed unlawful unless growers come up with a state-approved program to monitor and report their water usage.

Sonoma and Mendocino County grape growers are fiercely opposed to the proposal, while fish and stream advocates say it is the only one they’ve seen so far with any teeth.

Huffman, an attorney who specializes in water law, said he has no illusions his bill will head off that battle.

“It’s not going to avoid the conflict that’s coming,” he said.

But the bill aims to help in another way.

Grower organizations have been pushing their members to build off-stream ponds recently as way to minimize diversion-related stream drawdowns and lessen the pinch of any final frost-water regulations. But a backlog in the state approval process for new water rights means such projects take years to get a go-ahead. State officials say the average wait is two to three years; growers said 10 years or more is common.

The new legislation targets that delay by establishing a separate pipeline for quicker review and approval of small irrigation ponds. A similar track for livestock and small domestic ponds has a turnaround of weeks, state water officials said.

The reduction in red tape could be a big incentive for growers, the bill’s backers said.

“We think this is really going to encourage a lot of people to do this that haven’t put in a (pond) application before,” said Tim Schmelzer, legislative representative for the Wine Institute, the San Francisco-based trade group.

Under the legislation, a small irrigation pond is defined as a project that diverts no more than 42,000 gallons a day or 20-acre feet per year.

An acre-foot generally is described as the amount used by single-family suburban home in a year.

That top-level has raised some eyebrows among local stream watchers, who considered it high for smaller streams in the region.

“Particularly if everybody is refilling their pond at the same time,” said Stephen Fuller-Rowell, a Santa Rosa water activist.

He said he supported the proposal in principal, but added “I’m not sure how that will work in practice.”

Within the next year, provided it has the funding, the state water board is set to draw up the conditions that would apply to new irrigation ponds.

Some ponds would also be subject to conditions from the state Department of Fish and Game, which helps set and oversee flow levels for some streams.

Ponds that pose a problem would likely get kicked over to the main application line for new water rights, said Brian Johnson, a staff attorney for Trout Unlimited.

“This (bill) is meant to cover the ones that are very easy and that everybody agrees should go forward,” he said.

Contact Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or


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