In search of waters
By Linda Hale, Valley of the Moon Alliance
Fifteen years ago, our daughter, at the tender age of 22, tiptoed among the day lilies along the Smith River. She wasn’t doing this for pleasure. She was doing it as an intern on the Smith River Project. Her job was to convince the day lily farms along the Smith to try organic methods, and in turn, to protect the river. To do this she also had to convince them to let her test their wells. Many of the growers agreed and the river benefitted because they wanted to protect California’s last wild river. Today the Smith River flows freely and naturally for over 374 miles, without a single dam along its entire length. It descends from the California border through the Smith River National Recreation Area before passing through Jedediah Smith Redwoods to the Pacific Ocean. This pristine watershed is the last of its kind in the West.
People all over the United States are beginning to recognize the value of clean water sources from a healthy watershed. A healthy watershed means that wetlands should be preserved, streams should flow and fish should thrive. If you haven’t seen the movie The Russian River, All Rivers filmed in Sonoma County in 2014, you should. It tells the tale of our river as its shores were reshaped by pumping, straightened by gravel mining, and redesigned by the Warm Springs Dam in 1982. The waters of the Russian River have since warmed due to channeling and tree removal, and one of the world’s largest salmon populations has dwindled to less than 1,000 fish. Wetlands, previously used to replenish groundwater, and creeks have disappeared and development has taken their place. Ninety percent of the land along the Russian River is now privately owned. The 1980s and 1990s saw enormous growth in Sonoma County and water usage soared.
On a recent morning as I drove out, I noticed that vineyards in Kenwood were being watered by overhead spray. It was a balmy 68-degree morning with no frost in sight. We’d been having days of continuous rain, so frost protection could not have been needed. And, of course, I asked myself, “where is the water coming from and what does it cost?” Groundwater and pumping are not regulated, so one third of the entire flow of the Russian River is extracted from pumping from the river and from groundwater in wells, to be shipped out of the County in the form of wine and bottled water. My husband reminded me of the predicament of the town of Weed, California, north of us. The residents of Weed now face a long legal battle over a spring that has supplied the town with water since 1909. Roseburg Forest Products bought the land the spring is on from International Paper 50 years ago and have now decided to cut off this source of Weed’s water. They had honored all previous agreements to provide the city with water for $1. Now the company sells this forest “product” to Crystal Geyser Alpine Spring for bottled water. Roseburg Forest Products bottles it right there in Weed and ships it as far away as Japan. According to the New York Times, “Crystal Geyser is looking to increase its overall supply.” And profits “are enormous.” Nestle, the maker of the Arrowhead brand that you can buy at Costco, extracts about 36 million gallons of water a year from the San Bernardino National Forest in Southern California to bottle and sell. According to BBC News, “the permit that Nestle uses to operate its pipeline in the San Bernardino mountains costs just $524 a year.” Though the permit expired in 1988, the $524 is paid yearly and the license is still considered valid by the U.S. Forest Service which issued the original permit. Nestle is an international corporation based in Switzerland, and Nestle Waters’ natural resource manager Larry Lawrence said in the article that the company has no plans to stop bottling water “largely because of public demand.”
We are facing similar challenges here. The Sonoma Country Inn project in Kenwood with its spa, restaurant, guest facilities, pools, and proposed winery will put enormous demands on our groundwater. The Kenwood Vineyards expansion will also see their two wells extracting more water than ever. Just over the hill, a Hong Kong real estate conglomerate purchased the Calistoga Hills Resort, at the northern end of the Napa Valley near the geysers. On the 88-acre property, 8,000 trees will be cut, making way for 110 hotel rooms, 20 luxury homes, 13 estate lots, and a restaurant. Room rates will reportedly start at about $1,000 a night and the grounds will include amenities such as a pool, spas, outdoor showers and individual plunge pools outside select guest rooms, according to the Food & Environment Reporting Network. “Build it and they will come” is a lousy way to run an ecosystem and it is not sustainable. Just ask the fish.
The Valley of the Moon Alliance was formed to promote the preservation, protection and maintenance of the agricultural character, natural resources and rural beauty of Sonoma Valley. We are committed to providing a forum for research, information, education and recommendations on projects that affect the environmental qualities of the valley communities.