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Monterey County Farmer Highlight: Water Conservation

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Mathew Shea,Bernardus Vineyards, Cachagua Valley

Matthew Shea’s work on the Bernardus Estate vineyards in the Cachagua region of Carmel Valley can be summed up in his own words: “Farming for me is a never-ending process of trying to return the land to the condition it was in before being disturbed”.

Centuries ago in this area, Native Americans used the Spanish word Cachagua to denote deep or hidden water. While Matthew’s roots are in the Carmel Valley, he spent years managing vineyards in the Willamette Valley of Oregon before returning seven years ago to care for the Bernardus estate vineyards. Now as vineyard manager, he applies his understanding of water and nutrient cycling along with his background in biodynamic and organic agriculture to achieve a balance between vineyards and ecosystems, much in the same way a winemaker tempers his or her expertise in chemistry with an artistic exploration of flavors. Matthew’s strategically managed water collection and recycling system helps to restore Cachauga’s age-old concept by greatly reducing erosion and runoff on the land he farms.

The Bernardus Winery chose the Marinus vineyard site because its steep topography gave it a high capacity to drain into an existing retention pond.

Recognizing the unique beauty of the Cachagua and Carmel Valley areas, they kept oak trees in place when establishing the vineyard throughout 1989 and 1990, but most water management features were not yet installed. In 1997, catastrophic flooding from El Niño rains washed away a large amount of topsoil and highlighted the need for a better system to capture surface water and prevent erosion. Onsite water runoff was not being adequately captured and the remaining holding capacity was diminished due to siltation in the existing pond. In response to the 1997 environmental catastrophe, a more comprehensive water management system was created, installing roof gutters, culverts, drains, and underground piping. The goal of stewarding the vineyard’s natural resources throughout was incorporated into the design, and now, Bernardus’ water management culminates in the re-allocation of thousands of acre feet of water.

The intricate drainage system Matthew manages for the Marinus vineyard separates, slows, and re-directs the flow of water throughout the property. Drains installed at low elevation points on the edges of the vineyards blocks convey tailwater through a series of pipes into silt ponds. In addition, Matthew created small beveled spillways in several of the other places where he noticed water flow, especially during winter rains. These spillways cut across the grass borders surrounding the vineyards and send tailwater into the silt ponds. The tailwater is collected to allow for silt to settle, and vertical pipes at the lower edge of the silt ponds drain any pooled water that surpasses the height of the pipes. Then, water follows a series of additional silt ponds downhill that continue to filter out fine sediment until converging in the primary silt pond below.

A grassed ditch above this primary silt pond filters out additional sediment. When any of the silt ponds are full with sediment, the silt is removed and reused to supplement soil in the vineyards. From the primary silt pond, tailwater passes through a gently sloping grassed waterway to channel additional surface flows and trap additional sediment while also providing suitable habitat for wildlife. From there, the tailwater flows into a holding pond that attracts and supports abundant diversity of wildlife, such as fish, herons, red-winged blackbirds, ducks, geese, and turkeys.

Despite the initial capital costs of installing such a complex water collection system, Matthew’s water reuse component reaps perennial cost savings for the vineyard due to reduced need for water from wells. To reduce electricity costs, Matthew pumps the water from the holding pond to the top of the vineyard during off peak electric rate hours at night. Then, gravity conveys recovered water through drip irrigation lines that irrigate the vineyards while reducing additional pumping costs. To optimize water use, Matthew uses the newest advances in irrigation management. Watering decisions are climate and soil dependent and are based on a suite of tools at Matthew’s disposal, including a pair of soil moisture sensors and weather stations, as well as visual and touch (tactile) measurements to relay as much useful information as possible regarding soil water needs.

The recovery system helps offset the majority of water uses that vary according to the microclimatic conditions within the different vineyards Matthew manages.

As days shorten and temperatures gradually drop before winter, grape vines harden off and go into dormancy, where water is released from cells and it is less likely for vines to be damaged. After emerging from dormancy, budbreak occurs. However, a warm winter, such as last year’s, can shorten dormancy and put budbreak earlier in the season when frost is still a risk to kill that season’s crop. Since temperatures can vary even among different areas in the vineyard, frost risk varies accordingly in those areas. As a precaution, Matthew sprinkler irrigates during frost events using captured surface water. Matthew normally tries to time his drip irrigation applications to the grapes before it rains so a column in the soil can form that will increase soil absorption, targeting water that reaches the soil to where it is needed at the roots. This brings the added benefit of avoiding compaction and sheet flow runoff. In the end, though, most of the water that is not lost to evaporation, taken up by plant roots, or absorbed into the soil ends up in the tailwater recovery system.

The vineyard hasn’t quantified the exact volume of water conserved using their system, but Matthew notices the differences that matter most. He knows how many times each year the retention pond recharges and counts it all positive compared to before the drainage system was in place when most water absorbed into the field and contributed little to recharge. The system as a whole, he remarks, “enhances bottom line finite assets as well as nature’s assets.”

Several features in the vineyards not only benefit wildlife, but soil dynamics and plant health alike. Between the vines, cover crops of cereal rye, clover and peas are necessary to reduce erosion on the steep hillsides, and they provide several additional benefits to the land. Matthew carefully monitors the cover crops and tills them into the soil when they are at 80-90% of their flowering, taking advantage of their peak in nitrogen content. This step returns the optimal amount of nitrogen to the soil for the next season’s crop. Under the vines, Matthew relies on cover crops’ counterpart, compost, to supplement soil health on his vineyard. He procures the compost from field waste and facilities on site, and applies two year-old compost in the fall under the vines, using one third of the total compost each year. This helps to restore soil tilth and composition and facilitates the availability of nutrients to the plant. This combination boosts vine productivity overall and fosters healthy grape growth, while eliminating the need for offsite fertilizers and composts.

Practical decisions to protect wildlife and water quality have not compromised productivity in the vineyards. For three years, Matthew has avoided applying synthetic fertilizers that would supplement added nutrients from compost and cover crops in the vineyards. His choice reduces the strain that nutrient leaching has on water quality. In recognition of his efforts Matthew asserts, “As we industrialize, we lose our knowledge of the habitat and look for a solution from the shelf, but generally there is an equally good solution if you can figure out how to work in synergy with the natural system.” For an alternative yet effective mildew solution, Matthew applies oil-based organic fungicide two or three times before the growing season because it isn’t affected by rain or cold weather. The oil works well with the microclimate, where typically cold and wet springs transition into warm and dry summers. After waiting 14 days and once temperatures rise, Matthew switches to using sulfur because it is more effective. The sulfur is affected by rain and cold weather, but inclement weather in California is not as likely after the early season. To further reduce the strain on water quality and limit impacts to wildlife, he does not apply any herbicides that can be toxic to aquatic organisms. In fact, the vineyard transitioned completely away from herbicides and now relies on mechanical cultivation for weed control as well as the use of nine goats that graze weeds in rows between vines. Matthew removed rows from production that were not cost-effective to tend, and instead put in flowering blends to create habitat for beneficial insects. He also removed vines from an area in the middle of one vineyard and let the space grow wild in order to create habitat for beneficial insects and wildlife. He currently experiments with projects like these to not only create habitat, but to assess how his vineyards provide connectivity for wildlife habitats. Finally, several owl boxes and raptor roosts dot the premises and attract larger birds to hunt gophers and ground squirrels. Whatever alternative approach Matthew chooses to managing the vineyard originates from careful thought and attention to its health as a whole.