Even if growers make it through the frost season in good shape, they may face a long, hot summer without irrigation options. Water officials announced at a meeting last week in Cloverdale that even if California received a foot of rain in the next three months—an amount that forecasters say is unlikely—the state's water supply would still only equal what it was in 1977, the second year of the worst drought in California's history. Lake Mendocino could even dry up at the current rate.
Indeed, with more people now using the state's water resources, the likelihood of unprecedented damage to the environment and the state's wine industry is substantial. Randle Johnson, winemaker with the Hess Collection, says his Mount Veeder vineyards rarely experience frost and will survive without water this spring. This summer, though, his vines could suffer. "Our reservoir is at maybe 20 percent, and by July it might be empty," Johnson says, adding that his hillside vineyards have no wells or groundwater supply.
THE STORM WASN'T ENOUGH
Peter Baye, a resident of Annapolis and a member of the Friends of the Gualala River, says the weekend's storm, though "a real gully-washer," might not have been enough to quench the area's thirst. "You can't get much more than that in one weekend," he says, "but this won't much change the current hydrology."
Many vertical feet of earth beneath the surface have slowly dried over the past several years of below-average rainfall, he says. Additionally, the Gualala watershed is under increasingly intensive use by the wine industry. (A new vineyard with a 90-acre-foot reservoir is going in now near Ohlson Ridge.) Tributaries that once contained water all year have reportedly been drying up in the summer, something that didn't happen in the past.
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HALCYON DAYS A woman walks past a mural in downtown Healdsburg depicting the region's agricultural history. Despite the deluge, it would take substantial downpours to reach even the dismal water levels of the 1977 drought.
"We've had old-timers saying this wasn't an issue before," Baye says. "This isn't happening because of the drought. It's the growing pressure on the groundwater that feeds into the streams."
Baye says that once grape growers cease watering their vineyards, stream levels rise again. The correlation, he is certain, is no coincidence. "Magically, at the end of the irrigation season, even when it hasn't rained yet, the rivers bounce back up," he says.
The ridge of high atmospheric pressure over the Pacific Ocean that has been deflecting rain-making weather systems for 14 months has finally weakened, according to recent satellite images. This Sierra-size barrier of dense air, which pushed storm after storm north of California, was blamed as the cause of the state's extended drought. Now meteorologists are speculating whether it may be gone for the season and whether winter as usual will proceed. But farmers and naturalists remain cautious.
"If these conditions continue through 2014, then people might really start asking, 'Is this climate change?'" says Johnson.
Baye warns that the region is still thirsty even after the drenching Northern California received last weekend. "This was the third January in a row without rain," he says. "Groundwater is down, wells have gone dry. Eight inches of rain won't recharge the system."