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Wine, Water & Dirt by Don Wallace - Part 3


Wine, Water & Dirt by Don Wallace - Part 3

By Don Wallace

Water Usage By the Numbers

It wasn’t that long ago that our Governor said everyone in the state has to cut back on their water use, and we have already taken all we are going to take for now from agriculture. Well low and behold one of our major newspapers prints an article supposedly informing the public how much of California’s water goes to agriculture. I don’t know where they got their figures but the state’s website says differently. The newspaper said something like 80% goes to agriculture.

When I checked the official website for the State of California, not believing what I read, the numbers that I found were as follows: 9% in stream flows, 31% wild & scenic rivers, 2% managed wetlands, 7% required Delta outflows for a whopping 49% to keep our wet places wet. Then 10% goes to urban areas and the remaining 41% goes to agriculture to produce 50% of the nation’s digestibles. These numbers reflect pre-drought information…I am not sure what it looks like now that cutbacks have been put in place. Now that I have that off my chest, I am supposed to be writing about the changes that I have seen over the last 30 years as an agribusiness professional. One thing that hasn’t changed much is the amount of water used in the Dry Creek Valley. As a matter of fact the amount of water used per acre has gone down. That is because we practice dry farming where it makes sense and more importantly a large portion of the grape growers who farm in Dry Creek Valley practice “Deficit Irrigation” in their vineyards. This is a technical term for water stressing grape vines to increase quality. This kind of farming takes fancy equipment, money and someone that knows how to use it all. If you do it right you maximize wine quality while saving a lot of water. But if you overdo it, i.e. “excess water stress”, wine quality goes to hell in a hurry. Wineries today have also cut way back on water consumption by employing newequipment and better practices in water conservation.

The reason that I know this is sometime around 2006 a small group of us needed to know more about water in Dry Creek Valley. So we came up with the cash to pay a hydrologist to look at several things and one of those things was water use per year from 1955 to 2006. The information was great to see but I was shocked. Back in 1955 Dry Creek and Dry Creek Valley looked a lot different. Dry Creek Valley had no hustle & bustle, no dream homes with their swimming pools and bowling greens, very few wineries and very few farmers compared to today.

In 1955 they were using roughly 10,000 acre feet of water per year but the surprising thing was that at the time of the study in 2006, we were back to using 10,000 acre feet. Now that is what I call water conservation! My guess is that if these same studies were done across the County today that similar results would be found because quality is king in the Sonoma wine biz. Every farmer wants to get the very best from his vineyard or they won’t stay in business very long and “Deficit Irrigation” is an important tool to make that happen.

The last thought I would leave you with is that the water a farmer uses goes one of three places. It is taken up into the plant and consumed, it evaporates from the plant or on its way to the plant or it just goes back into the soil where it can find its way to the water table. On the other hand, you know what happens when water goes into a town or city and where it ends up. I won’t bore you with the details but it isn’t good.

Case in point, is the environmental damage done to the Laguna. Until waste water systems employ membrane filtration systems that will remove the inorganic compounds, waste water is not safe for consumable products over the long haul. That is because the solids left in the water after tertiary treatment contain particles that accumulate and therefore over time will lead to toxic levels. I believe that there are six cities in California that employ this kind of technology that all large incorporated areas should be putting in NOW.  Santa Clara County, Los Angeles County, South Los Angeles County, Venture County, Orange County and San Diego all have made this investment in our future.

The last time the state of California spent significant money on water infrastructure our population was roughly 17,000,000. Today, California’s population exceeds 41,000,000. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where a big part of our water problems lie. 


This article is the 3rd part in a series on Sonoma County agriculture.