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San Francisco Bay Regional Water Board Adopts General Permit for Vineyard Properties in the Napa River and Sonoma Creek Watersheds

7/30/2018 Articles

Over the last several years, the Regional Water Quality Control Board, for the San Francisco Bay Region (Water Board), determined that adoption of Waste Discharge Requirements were needed to better protect the Napa River and Sonoma Creek Watersheds.  As a result, the Water Board embarked on a lengthy process to do so, and in July 2017, the Water Board adopted a water quality control permit (General Permit) for vineyard properties within the Watershed to reduce discharges of sediment, storm runoff and other pollutants from vineyard properties.  You will be required to enroll your vineyard property -- a parcel or continuous parcels under same ownership developed with a vineyard -- in the Water Board’s General Permit Program if it meets these criteria:

  • Five acres or larger
  • Planted on less than a slope of 30 percent
  • Planted on less than 5 acres where Water Board staff deems discharge(s) may affect water quality

For existing vineyards, enrollment must take place by July 31, 2018.  For existing vineyards within the 2017 wildfire perimeter, the enrollment deadline is extended to July 21, 2019.  And for new vineyards, enrollment is required by the later of, one year prior to planting, or by July 31, 2018.  Enrollment may be done electronically through the Water Board portal. Permit fees will be established by the State Water Resources Control Board, and will be assessed after July 31, 2019.  The fees will thereafter be assessed on an annual basis, based on planted acreage.  The Water Board’s Fact Sheet published as part of the roll-out of the General Permit states that “if a fee were required today, a typical vineyard would pay $1-$1.50 per planted vineyard acre, per year.” 

Why did the Water Board act?  The Water Board found that vineyards and unpaved roads within the vineyards are sources of sediment and related adverse discharges.  With one-sixth of Napa River and Sonoma Creek watersheds planted in grapes, vineyard activities were determined to be a potentially significant source of potential harm to the environment.  In addition, hillslope vineyard parcels include many miles of unpaved roads, further threatening surface water, groundwater resources, and aquatic life.  As a result, the Water Board determined that a General Permit approach would allow development of appropriate Best Management Practices (BMPs) to mitigate further damage to and restore affected streambeds and nearby areas. 

Once a vineyard property is enrolled in the program, the next step is to develop a Farm Plan. The farm plan documents the property’s natural features, developed areas, and BMPs to protect water quality.  The General Permit goes on to require that these Farm Plans be verified, which can be done through third party programs administered by and through the following entities: 

  • California Land Stewardship Institute (Fish Friendly Farming Program)
  • California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance
  • Napa County Resource Conservation District (LandSmart Program)
  • Sonoma Resource Conservation District (LandSmart Program)

The farm plans may also be submitted to Water Board staff for review and approval.  Indeed, many vineyards are currently operating with well-developed plans to protect water quality and employ sustainable practices, and those existing plans may well qualify as a verifiable farm plan under the General Permit.  Types of performance standards the Water Board will be looking for in vineyard farm plans may include, erosion control, nutrient management and pesticide management.  In addition, hillslope vineyard properties may require standards associated with reducing peak storm runoff, avoiding diversions at culvert crossings and building new roads, including unpaved roads, to ensure adequate conveyance of significant water flows at crossings and the like.

Finally, vineyard properties may select a particular tier (Tiers 1, 2 or 3) when enrolling which will determine the scope of monitoring and reporting, and which will also inform the setting of the permit fee.  For example, under Tier 1, reporting will be required once every five years, with photographs required at particular monitoring points.  Under Tier 2, annual reporting will be the norm, with photographic monitoring augmented by collecting information on streambed conditions and the effectiveness of the BMPs set out in the property’s farm plan.  Tier 3 is for farm plans developed independently, requirements include those above along with possibly higher permit fees.  Group monitoring may be available through the Napa County Farm Bureau and similar organizations.

For additional information and resources, vineyard owner and operators should consult with Water Board staff, and/or the third party entities mentioned above. 

The Water Board’s General Permit website: https://www.waterboards.ca.gov/sanfranciscobay/water_issues/programs/agriculture/vineyard/index.html

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