CAN'T CANOE Water levels in the Russian River have been too low for would-be boaters, as this stack of canoes at W.C. Trowbridge Canoe Rentals in Healdsburg.
FISH ARE SUFFERING
Eric Larson, a biologist with the state's Department of Fish and Wildlife, says that when the Russian River Valley experiences subfreezing temperatures, hundreds of vineyard managers may begin pumping river water at the same time to mist over their vines, causing the river's level to drop rapidly. Salmon in the system may become stranded, and their nests of fertilized eggs may be exposed to dry air and destroyed. "When the temperatures drop, the grape growers have their eyes on the river, and we have our eyes on them," Larson says. "We're all watching the same temperature forecast."
The Russian is not the only river in which salmon and steelhead populations are struggling.
"Overall, the Central Coast coho are already looking at extremely reduced numbers, and this drought does not help," says Stafford Lehr, chief of fisheries with the Department of Fish and Wildlife. South of the Golden Gate in particular, coho streams are liable to remain dry all winter, he says, eliminating an entire year class of fish. North of San Francisco, watersheds are subject to more rainfall and may be better off. The Eel River, for example, received a tremendous dumping of rainfall this weekend, opening up spawning habitat that has been inaccessible for months.
But in the Russian River, salmon and steelhead that hatched in the system last year have reportedly mostly vanished, either killed by high temperatures in shallow standing pools of water or eaten by predators. Even the weekend's rains did not help fish born last year. To the south, coho salmon have been struggling to enter Lagunitas Creek for weeks. The stream, which runs off the northern slopes of Mount Tamalpais and enters Tomales Bay, once hosted thousands of spawning coho each year, but now sees annual returns of just several dozen fish. Larson says that last year's return was poor due to low flows, and 2014's spawn, he says, could be a failure.
On the Russian River, about 400 coho salmon spawned last year. "But we want several thousand," Larson says.
He says that almost two hundred adult coho, ready and willing to spawn, are in the system, along with Chinook salmon and steelhead. Most of the tributaries where they historically lay and fertilize their eggs, however, have been too low for fish to enter. Last Thursday, the five-member Fish and Game Commission voted to close coastal rivers to sport fishing. Winter is usually prime time for steelhead fishing, but the fish are already under extreme stress, and the decision was made to give the steelhead the best chance possible at spawning.
"The fish have been stacked near Duncans Mills, and the bait fishermen and the sea lions were just hammering them," says Dave Wiens, a fly fisherman from Novato who supports the emergency closure. "They just didn't need that extra pressure of being caught."
Protecting every last cubic foot of the Russian River's water for fish could produce a sufficient return of spawners this winter, but the action could cost grape growers and winemakers a great deal of their year's income. Most years, the average Pinot Noir vine produces enough fruit to make about three bottles of wine. But yields will likely be down this year, and some vines could be worth just a few glasses.
Loss of early growth to frost kills the most productive shoots of a vine. "That first budding is the most fruitful," explains winemaker Scot Covington of Trione Vineyards in the Alexander Valley. "You can get growth afterward, but it won't produce as much fruit."
Some growers, it seems, are expecting disastrous crops. Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, says crop insurance is selling rapidly this winter. Meanwhile, other growers anticipating insufficient water for frost protection are planning to use wind machines, which can help mix warmer air above a vineyard with the freezing air at vine level, offsetting any threat to the plants. "I've been hearing that rentals for wind machines have quadrupled and sales have doubled," Kruse says.