Sep 24, 2019
By Anna Ransome
Prominent Sonoma County wine executive Hugh Reimers has been ordered to submit a plan to repair the damage his wine company has done to hundreds of acres of natural habitat along Little Sulphur Creek, Big Sulphur Creek, and Crocker Creek near Cloverdale.
The North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board listed the damage in its June Notice of Violation issued to Reimers and his company, Krasilsa Pacific Farms, LLC. The Notice says that the winegrower bulldozed 50 acres of oak woodlands, deep-ripped about 200 acres of meadow, dredged and filled 10,000 square feet of wetlands, and dumped tree branches and other fill-in 2,450 feet of natural creeks which historically served as salmon runs.
The actions directly threaten wildlife habitat and aquatic species, the Water Board notice said. “The discharge of organic and earthen material in the Russian River watershed is especially problematic because . . . the Russian River watershed is listed as an impaired water body” and the sediment can seriously impair salmon populations by clogging the spaces in the gravel stream bed where the salmon lay their eggs.
Reimers, who has years and years of experience with winegrowing, as CEO and President of two major wine companies, can hardly claim ignorance about the regulations and procedures regarding land development. After receiving the Notice of Violation, he reportedly said he will cooperate fully with the water board, and didn’t intend any harm.
But will Reimers get to benefit from his wrongdoing? In similar situations, vintners have gotten away with destroying the environment by simply paying fines. By deliberately destroying the land first – then saying they are sorry — they get to keep the benefits of their environmental destruction by getting retroactive permits for their vineyards.
For example, a similar case occurred in Mendocino, in the North Fork Ten Mile River watershed, where Rhys Vineyards filled in wetlands, destroyed waterways and bulldozed oak woodland for vineyard development.
Rhys Vineyards is owned by Kevin Harvey, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and founding partner of Benchmark Capital, a venture capital firm.
The Mendocino environmental degradation began in 2015 and included the construction of roads and stream crossings – causing irreparable harm to already fragile wetlands, the Water Board said. As with Reimers, the work was done without applying for or obtaining the required permits or authorization from state agencies.
A statement from the authorities noted that soil erosion “impacts the migration, spawning, and reproduction of salmonid species, such as endangered Chinook and Coho salmon and steelhead trout”.
Harvey said he was sorry. It was all a misunderstanding.
“Rhys Vineyards, LLC deeply regrets the mistakes made. They want to thank the agencies involved for their diligence in working with them to resolve this matter and reaching an agreement," he announced through his attorney.
What was the agreement? In the Rhys case, the Water Board decided that the environmental damage was so great that restoration was “nearly impossible” and fined Rhys $3.7 million – a slap on the wrist for the tech millionaire. The only restoration required was returning the roads and river crossings to their original state.
In the Sonoma County Reimers case, the Water Board on August 29 issued a Cleanup and Abatement Order that requires him to restore the damaged property as closely as possible to its original condition or face fines.
However, restoration is a tricky process, especially where wetlands are involved, and the immediate damage to waterways and salmon runs is irreparable. No study has been done to determine the detrimental effect of Reimers’ destruction on wildlife, including nesting birds and animal habitats.
It’s important to recognize that as the wine industry acquires acreage in more remote areas, there are fewer neighbors and public eyes for scrutiny. For some winegrowers, this gives a greater incentive to take a chance on foregoing the permitting process and environmental.
Yet these lands deserve the highest protection as they provide forests, rivers and connective habitat for wildlife.
Friends of Atascadero Wetlands and the California Native Plant Society have written to the District Attorney, urging the office to prosecute Reimers. Several environmental organizations have spoken out in support of serious penalties and complete restoration.
What will be the lesson for winegrowers from all this? Will the officials we trust to protect our environment send a strong message to bad actors and end the practice of after-the-fact permits? Or will vineyard developers learn that no matter how terribly they ravage the environment, they will still get their vineyard in the end?
Where is the outcry from others in the wine industry who say they support sustainability?
For years, people have complained that big corporations get away with everything short of murder; that they reckoned fines were just part of the cost of doing business and were factored into business decisions.
Is that going to be the way the wine industry does business in Sonoma County?
Anna Ransome is the founder of Friends of Atascadero Wetlands.
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