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California Wineries on High Alert for Aggravated Drought as Dry Summer Looms

By Kevin Byrne, AccuWeather.com Staff Writer
April 24, 2014; 5:15 AM ET

Three months after a drought state of emergency was declared in California, things have steadied temporarily for grape growers, but there is still a long way to go in the season.

"Although we have had some rain, and things have improved a bit, we are still on high alert," said Steve McIntyre, president and founder of Monterey Pacific Vineyards.

This time of year is being described as the calm before the summer, according to another vineyard owner.

(Photo/Mendocino WineGrowers Inc.)

Zac Robinson, family owner of Husch Vineyards in Anderson Valley, Calif., said there was some short-term relief about a month ago. Two different storms hit the area within a period of two weeks and each brought about four to five inches of rain.

While rainfall totals are still half of what they normally are, for now, Robinson said fields are green, creeks are running and some ponds are filled.

Growers with water systems that include storage, for instance those with access to municipal water such as area lakes, saw an increase to their numbers.

For those like Husch, which relied on aquifers and ground water, all of that water came and went.

"The relief for many of us will be short-lived," Robinson said.

While the few storms that came through helped the vineyards, overall there have not been virtually any significant improvements to the drought throughout the state according to AccuWeather Western Weather Expert Ken Clark.

"What little rain may fall over the next month will not be a help at all and once we get into the later part of May through the summer, there is typically no rain that falls, or if there is [it's] inconsequential," Clark said.

(Photo/Mendocino WineGrowers Inc.)

Three months ago, there was talk about taking some drastic measures, such as cutting off the fruit because it drives the water demand for the plant.

Robinson said everyone is going to farm using as little water as possible, but extreme measures, such as cutting off fruit, now seem to be unnecessary.

In terms of supply for irrigation, most wells are in good shape, as they normally are during the spring, Robinson said.

"The question is what it's going to be doing in August," Robinson said.

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Just in the last week, the water restrictions have begun. The municipal water supplier vineyards rely upon in the Redwood Valley region of Mendocino County has cut off water supply by 100 percent.

The region sits about 3,000 acres of grapevines with about 75 different vineyards. Most of them are family owned.

Most vineyards have irrigation ponds, which are currently full, but they won't have the opportunity to refill them during the summer with the shortage.

Many have established preventive measures to prepare for the restrictions.

Many vineyards in the area purchased wind machines this year so they wouldn't have to use valuable water for frost protection this spring. (Photo/Mendocino WineGrowers Inc.)

At Robinson's facility, he said they are taking steps to reduce evaporation from their ponds, which is something they haven't tried before. Normally they lose the top 3 feet of water from their ponds.

They are experimenting with tarps and wind curtains and even chemical applications to see if they can mitigate evaporation and protect the water that they have.

Another fallback option is one that's worked before.

In 2008, Robinson said they saved 30 percent of the water on their fields using a double drip irrigation system.

Six months ago, they saw the writing on the wall and they converted the rest of the vineyard to the double drip system.

The system is set up so that emitters are targeted to the weakest vine. When those vines are showing stress and they need water, they're able to give them the water they need without putting the water out for every grapevine in the field. Then, about five weeks later, the second drip system is turned on when every crop needs water.

While no one would make the claim that the restricted water use is a good thing, there is a bit of a silver lining.

"You grow better quality grapes by tuning the amount of irrigation you give each grape vine," Robinson said. "It's not just a water conservation technique, but we get this huge dividend on fruit quality, which translates into wine quality."

"It's kind of a win-win in that regard."

Robinson said that with the recent storms, they're much better off and the drought has fallen from the local headlines. However, with the dry summer approaching, he expects it to come roaring back.

AccuWeather long-range forecasters anticipate drought conditions to worsen as the summer unfolds.

"It's gonna get crazy, there's no doubt about it, Robinson said."

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