Eintime Conversion for education and research 10-20-2007 @ 07:24:19
Copyrighted by originating associated source: Original

Drought a drain in wine country

By John Ritter, USA TODAY

SONOMA, Calif. — Charles Willard swears by his new high-tech outdoor irrigation system that uses satellite-monitored ground weather stations around the region to manage how much water his grass and plants receive.

Cool or cloudy means less irrigation. A heat wave tells the system to water more often. It shuts down for weeks during winter rains. The goal is for Willard's landscaping to get enough water to thrive, but not a drop more.

Willard, a marketing consultant, says he's using at least 10% less water a month with the $600 system, which he got for $300 with a rebate. "It's been reliable, certainly efficient based on the numbers," he says. "I haven't touched it other than minor adjustments. I don't even think about it anymore."

The debate here and in other parched areas of the nation is whether such voluntary measures will be enough to conserve water supplies. Parts of the USA — including California, much of the West and Southeast — are in a drought, or near-drought, and face the prospect of mandatory restrictions.

"Certain segments of the population won't do anything unless they're forced to, and penalties, including for some people (utilities) shutting off water, (are) serious enough," says Liz Gardener, Denver Water's conservation manager.

The agency isn't pushing to fine users for excessive watering as it did during Colorado's severe 2002-03 drought, she says. Billboards and bus signs urge conservation with the slogan "use only what you need."

'Pressure' on grape growers

Last month, California officials ordered the Sonoma County Water Agency to cut the amount of water it draws from the Russian River by 15% to keep the level high enough for fall salmon spawning. The unprecedented mandate is affecting 750,000 of the agency's customers in Sonoma and Marin counties, including growers of some of the nation's finest wine grapes.

"We're in a very desirable place to live, and we know there's tremendous pressure for the water we use to grow our grapes from urban sources and fisheries," says Pete Opatz, a viticulturist who manages vineyards for Vino Farms in Sonoma and Napa counties.

San Francisco, Los Angeles, other California cities and Alameda County have asked consumers in the past three months to voluntarily use less water. Supplies stored in reservoirs will be adequate the rest of this year, but another meager snowfall in the Sierra Nevada likely could mean mandatory cutbacks next year.

"Another winter like last winter and we're in serious trouble," says Brad Sherwood, spokesman for the Sonoma water agency. The Sierra snowpack, which melts in spring and supplies much of California's water, was 27% of its normal volume this year. Rocky Mountains snow that melts into the Colorado River and supplies water to 30 million people, including Las Vegas and Southern California, has also been anemic most of this decade.

Water-saving plumbing codes and rebates for water-efficient appliances have reduced water wasted indoors nationwide, but outdoor use keeps growing, even in dry areas where lush, irrigated lawns can't be justified, says Amy Vickers, a conservation consultant in Amherst, Mass.

"Having a lawn and other irrigated landscaping in a desert, even if it's watered efficiently, still uses a tremendous amount of water," she says.

When a city asks for voluntary cutbacks on watering lawns, it may not see the drop it expects, Vickers says. "When you say, for example, only water every other day or every third day, people start assuming that they should water on those days whether they need to or not," she says.

The only proven strategy for cutting outdoor use, Vickers says, is a mandatory water schedule backed up by enforcement and penalties.

Conservation a 'fact of life'

In April, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission asked the 2.4 million Bay Area residents it serves to cut water use by 10% by June or face possible rationing. By mid-June, the agency had seen an 18% drop in projected use, but that could have been because the weather was unseasonably cool, says spokesman Tony Winnicker.

As temperatures warmed, water use spiked again. "We don't feel like we're out of the woods, by any means," he says. "Conservation is always going to be a fact of life in California."

During the state's last severe drought, from 1987 to 1992, some consumers knew they would be restricted to a water allotment based on previous use and reasoned, "Wow, I'll turn on the faucets now so my allotment will be higher," Winnicker says.

Raising the cost of water achieves only limited reductions, particularly among affluent consumers, says Kathy Nguyen, water conservation coordinator for Cobb County, Ga. "Water is a basic life need, so the higher you raise the price, there's only so much savings," she says.

Long term, it's unclear whether conservation will be enough. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed building two huge, multibillion-dollar dams so the state can store more water. But he faces stiff legislative opposition.

Among wine-grape growers in Sonoma and Napa counties, conservation "has been pounded into everybody's head for 15 years," Vino Farms' Opatz says. Most vineyards have sophisticated instruments that give precise data on soil moisture and the water content of vines so growers don't start irrigating too early in the late spring.

To achieve the mandated 15% reduction, some growers will delay irrigation. That will please wineries that buy the growers' grapes, because starting irrigation later stresses the vines, and more stress produces a tastier grape. But less water and more stress means a grower produces fewer tons of grapes, and growers get paid by the ton.

"That's always going to be the compromise when we talk water in our industry," he says.

Contributing: Marissa DeCuir; Stefanie Frith, The (Palm Springs, Calif.) Desert Sun; Tim Evans, The Indianapolis Star; Dan Nakaso, Honolulu Star-Bulletin; Jeff DeLong, Reno (Nev.) Gazette-Journal; Marty Roney, Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser; Wes Johnson, Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader; wire reports.

(Original Len: 6437 Condensed Len: 6640)

10-20-2007 @ 07:24:19