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Water Woes Ease A Bit For NorCal Vineyards

Ed Joyce/Capital Public Radio
Irrigation ponds at the Terra d'Oro vineyard in Amador County were nearly empty in early 2015. But a near-normal winter 2015-16 has filled the ponds.

As the California drought was in its fourth year, Capital Public Radio visited two northern California vineyards that rely on groundwater. A year later – after a season in which much more rain and snow fell on the region -- he checked in to see how they're doing now. 

While the pain has eased, growers see chronic water shortages as the new normal going forward.

What a difference a year makes.

"Last year, when you were here, we had almost no water in any of our irrigation ponds that we kind of try to collect the water in from around all of our 500 acres that we're farming," says Chris Leamy, the winemaker at Terra d'Oro Vineyard in Plymouth. "Now all of our ponds are full. So we have some water to start with when it gets to be time to irrigate."

Leamy says his well is much fuller too.

The rolling hills around the vineyard in the Shenandoah Valley are much greener than a year ago, and the ground cover is more lush than 2015.

"There's nice moisture in our soil strata right now," says Leamy. "So when these grapes start sprouting out and start budding and going again this season, there'll be water available to them and we'll want to use all that water up before we consider doing any irrigation."

Leamy says the vineyard has collected a lot more water than at the same point in 2015.

"Absolutely," he says. "It's been night and day, it's lovely."

Nine miles south of Terra d'Oro is Shake Ridge Vineyards in Sutter Creek.

The 216-acre vineyard also relies on groundwater and drip irrigation.

Shake Ridge Vineyard Manager Ann Kraemer says year-to-year climate variability is something she, and all farmers in the region, must adjust to.

"This is what we are going to deal with and we'll have those odd years that we get plenty of rain," says Kraemer. "But even that snowpack, if it doesn't stay there and percolate into the ground, I don't know where my aquifer's being recharged from, you know, how far up into the Sierra. It's a 500-foot well so it could be from far away is where that vein of water's coming, so this is, this is our new normal."

Kraemer says grapes are ideal for drought cycles and climate change, which is expected to reduce Sierra Nevada snow, and the water supply it provides.

"Grape vines are a great crop to be farming because you could get by with almost nothing," says Kraemer.

For now, the groundwater is sufficient for both vineyards in Amador County. But not all the rainfall in the region helps growers.

"So just because we've received great rainfall, some of that rainfall will need to be used, if you will, by the soil to replace the groundwater and that may not be effectively available for plants," says Lynn Wunderlich, a Farm Advisor with UC Cooperative Extension.

Wunderlich works with growers in Amador, El Dorado, Calaveras and Tuolumne counties.

While snowpack is significantly above-average in the northern Sierra this April, compared to April 2015, she says foothill farms don't benefit much from the snow melt.

"And it may not actually trickle down to the foothill soils," Wunderlich says. "So, it could, through groundwater channels, and that's a bit mysterious actually. I think most of it is probably is channeled through the watersheds down to the valleys. So we don't really have groundwater basins in the foothills."

She says the foothills have, in general, shallower depth in the soil from the surface to the bedrock, then other growing areas in California.

Both Amador County vineyards rely primarily on groundwater supply.

And, growth in Amador County, means more straws dipping into that "lake down below" as Terra d’Oro winemaker Chris Leamy puts it.

"You never really know how many straws there are in that aquifer," he says. “What we have seen this year, is that our aquifer, the levels have been rising. Our aquifer is filling which is happy news, we'll happily take that. And, we'll just try to be as gentle with that water as we can over the dry summer months and be ready to go for the next season."

But right now, the two Amador County vineyards are watching their buds form and, along with smart irrigation, they're getting just enough of the finite water supply to make that happen.

Copyright 2016 Capital Public Radio