Northern California is famed for its wineries and producing wines that are sold worldwide.
The region is also said to be the most valuable agricultural land in all of North America, and is rich in biodiversity. The Napa, Russian, and Navarro rivers and Sonoma Creek define the landscape where grape farmers use these waterways to produce the wines the region is famous for, and iconic fish species like steelhead trout and Coho salmon utilise the area for breeding. This region also serves as a critical habitat for migratory birds, butterflies, and a wide variety of native plant and animal species too.
Without the right farming practices however, the wineries can be hazardous to the numerous lifeforms that call the region home, especially the coho salmon population, which has since become endangered in Northern California.
Like other agricultural industries in California, vineyards rely on water for their operations. But at the same time, fish need enough cool water in their streams to survive. Coho salmon and some steelhead remain in their home stream for a year. Without sufficient cold, clean water all year round, there is no in-stream habitat for young coho and steelhead.
Vineyards operating in the Northern Californian region pull water from these rivers. Pull too much water during the dry season and the creeks become impassable and coho salmon populations crash.
Vineyard owners, nonprofit organisations like The Nature Conservancy and Earthwatch Institute, and local governments are now working alongside scientists to ensure that California’s rivers continue to simultaneously support its local agriculture and its natural habitat, and to find ways for the fish and grapes to coexist.
Water management is key to the solution in both recovering coho salmon and steelhead populations, as well as mitigating the effects of climate change in the Northern California region. To help solve the problem, vineyard owners have been turning to more efficient irrigation such as storing water during the rainy seasons to reduce the strain when it’s dry, and planting cover crops to guard against soil erosion.
Wineries in the region such as Roederer Estate have installed water storage ponds and systems to recapture and reuse irrigation runoff.
The Nature Conservancy is working with state agencies to create new winter water rights, which would allow wineries to pull and keep water from streams when they are full from heavy seasonal rains, and so ensuring that will leave more in the rivers when salmon need it the most.
The Nature Conservancy is also encouraging vineyard owners to work together to coordinate water demand and supply.
Fish Friendly Farming, an Environmental Certification Program run by the California Land Stewardship Institute, highlights those wineries and farms that are working on growing practices that protect the endangered coho salmon and steelhead trout.
The Nature Conservancy have also teamed up with other conservancy groups, Trout Unlimited and California Trout to form the alliance group, California Salmon & Steelhead Coalition.
California Salmon & Steelhead Coalition believes that by solving the issues around streamflow, other recovery actions will be sufficient in recovering the coho salmon species within this lifetime.
California Salmon & Steelhead Coalition says: “The California Salmon & Steelhead Coalition works together to address state water policy, streamflow science, and resource management challenges to give salmon the best chance for survival across their freshwater lifecycle.
“We do this by increasing water supply reliability for people; working with landowners in high priority watersheds to develop projects that leave more water instream; using what we learn to increase incentives for water users and speed necessary permits; and providing water management tools for others to improve conditions in salmon and steelhead watersheds throughout the state.
“By working in this coordinated fashion, we are demonstrating that water management changes can show results, and that the benefits are immediate, direct and long-term.”
Rosa Medea is Life & Soul Magazine’s Chief @rosamedea