The Answer to California's Drought Problem Might Just Exist in Mendocino

“What is that thing?” I ask Tim Thornhill half jokingly as we’re sitting in his 15-year old Ford F-250 in the middle of his vineyard in Mendocino. “It’s a tape player” he answers. “I don’t like to throw anything away. Someone gave me a CD of songs so I put them on this tape." I wonder aloud about the camera with super 400mm zoom lens sitting on the floor the cabin. He tells me he’s had it since 1983. It seems Tim doesn’t only talk about recycling, reducing and reusing at his winery, he actually lives it.

We’re driving around Parducci’s estate vineyards talking about water conservation. In California, you can’t go 24 hours without hearing about the drought or how bad it is on the nightly news. What Tim has accomplished here in since buying Parducci in 2004 will change the way wineries manage water usage in the future—and the whole state is paying attention. “I’ve been getting invited to speak at a number of conferences this year,” he says nonchalantly realizing his creation's possible impact on solving California's water crisis.

In his past, life Thornill reached a high level of success by planting a majority of landscapes around Disney World and other major theme parks in Florida as well as around the country. He knows how to see the big picture when it comes to brining harmony to an ecosystem.

California’s drought isn’t just a matter of not getting much rain for the past three winters. The problem is a compounding problem over three years that starts to impact the soil deep below the surface. We need compounding rainy seasons to get back to normal—one rainy season isn’t going to do it. If you have a credit card, you know what compounding interest is. It doesn’t matter if you make the minimum payment, the balance is still due.

Looking around the state at who the biggest offenders are of water use gets dicey as just about all corners of the state are planted to some sort of agriculture. Is it the residents wasting water on lawns and car washes? Is the pot growers in Northern California using all the water? Is it the almond tree farmers who have sights set on higher profits? Somewhere in the deck is the wine industry. If California were a country, it would be the 4th largest wine producing country in the world. With over 427,000 acres planted to vine in the state, there’s a significant chunk of farming that can learn from the water saving practices in place at Parducci.


Clean Water, Less Water

Take a look at the water reduction chart below. If there’s one thing to take away from this entire article, it’s this.

When Thornhill took over the winery in 2004, Parducci was using about 18 acre feet of water. That translates to roughly 300,000 gallons. Today, Parducci has dipped below 8 acre feet—a reduction of more than half in just a few vintages. A seemingly impossible goal to achieve, but for a wine industry newcomer with enough naiveté who asks enough questions it happened. Thornhill didn't know any better.

photo courtesy of Tim Thornhill

photo courtesy of Tim Thornhill

But to use less water, there must be a compromise somewhere else—maybe in water quality. Not so fast. Not only is Parducci using less. The water is actually cleaner and they're using less electricity to achieve it. Water is used inside the winery for cleaning tanks, cleaning barrels, cleaning gear and cleaning the winery. All that dirty water goes somewhere and in this case, the water came out of the winery with a purple hue. Excuse me, it was purple. And it the stench was so bad drivers on highway 101 could smell it as they drove by.

photo courtesy of Tim Thornhill

photo courtesy of Tim Thornhill


The Blueprint in Action

There's two ideas in action. First, to conserve water Thornhill came up with a brilliant solution—a broom and dust pan. "We walked around the winery and saw how much water was wasted cleaning the winery floors. I saw one guy using a broom handle to jam solid waste down the drain rather than use the broom to sweep the floor". Thornhill installed 22 water monitors around the winery to measure how much water was being used and where. "We uncovered a leak on one faucet that must've been have been leaking for twenty years." 

What the water monitors achieved was a friendly rivalry between winery workers to see who could use the least amount of water in their respective area whether they were cleaning tanks, cleaning barrels or cleaning the floors. "Many people are afraid of change, but I actually embrace it as long as it can be measured," Thornhill points out. "one of our employees developed a new way to clean barrels using repurposed water. We can measure that reduction".

Thornhill credits this simple thinking to his dramatic reduction in water usage and points out how many wineries can follow suit starting with this harvest.

In the vineyard, Thornhill installed a double drip line. Although it might seem counterintuitive to add an additional drip line to reduce water consumption but the results are impressive. "The first drip line waters all the vines the same way any vineyard manager would. The second drip line only waters a handful of vines that need a bit extra from time to time," Thronhill points out. Depending on where a few keys vines sit on the contours of the hillside, they may require a bit of water because they drain faster than other vines. He adds, "most wineries would just turn on the first line and water all the vines that don't necessarily need it. Why waste that water?"


The second idea in action is cleaning the water coming out of the winery so it doesn't end up in the "purple pond". Water coming out of the winery begins its journey at the highest point on the property at Trickle Tower 1. Thornhill found a bunch of old barrel racks that he stacked together to make a tower. He then wraps wood staves in fabric and inserts them between the racks. Dirty winery water is pumped to the top and trickles down through the tower. "Where there's food, there's life," and in this case sugars from grapes in the water attract a healthy grayish fungus called Filamentous Fungi that feeds on organic materials in the water. The more organic material, the more fungus shows up to feed.

Trickle Tower 2 overlooking vineyards and marshland (Trickle Tower 3 not visible downhill)

Trickle Tower 2 overlooking vineyards and marshland (Trickle Tower 3 not visible downhill)

Trickle towers allow the dirty water to de-gas, or release some of its dirty smell into the air as it trickles down. Because the first trickle tower sits on the highest part of the property, gravity takes it to Trickle Tower 2 where the process is repeated. Then on to Trickle Tower 3 where again the water airs out and grows Filamentous Fungi naturally. By the time the water reaches the pond, the water is clean enough to meet California standards for water quality (parts per million). So far, only one pump has been used to get the water to the top of the hill. From there gravity and fungus has done the rest of the work.

But the water in the pond doesn't have enough oxygen. Thornhill installed one single 5 horsepower pump at the pond that brings clean water up where it is diverted to either one of the aerators (modeled after rivers in the Colorado Rockies) or through the wetlands (modeled after swamps in Florida). Again, gravity takes the water through one of the two back to the pond where oxygen levels far exceed anything the state of California sets as a goal for wineries.

Aerators are essentially small water falls built out of repurposed materials. One aerator pictured above is made from an old cement truck mixer that was cut in half. When water flows through the aerator oxygen is introduced along the way.

The marshland is a labyrinth of twists and turns where water gently flows through before re-entering the pond. Thornhill removed treated posts from the vineyards to keep his organic practices in place, but instead of discarding the posts, he laid them horizontally underneath a layer of rubber in a maze-like pattern. The rubber keeps water from seeping into the ground, and is the only material Thornhill added reluctantly. Along the water's edge are hundreds of rocks that allow small organisms to feed on any remaining dirty organic materials in the water. 

Measuring Change

Of the accolades and awards Thornhill has received, his biggest reward is looking out his window and seeing all the wildlife that calls Parducci home. Two large Osprey nests fashioned out of used palettes are home to a family of Osprey who raise babies each year. Migratory birds fly from Argentina to Alaska each year, and now stop at Parducci's pond along the way for a bite to eat.

California's Audubon society has awarded Thornhill an environmental award for the work on his property. Birds nobody has seen before now call the pond home either as permanent residents or as a stop along the way somewhere else.

California's wine industry can directly impact the severity of future drought problems starting now. A man with no prior wine industry experience motivated by leaving something to his children might just have the solution we've all been hoping for.