Over millennia, the Napa River deposited much of the soil that supports the valley’s vast carpet of vines. But for 40 years, the Environmental Protection Agency has classified the waterway as “impaired” by excessive levels of pathogens, sediment and oxygen-depleting nutrients like nitrates and phosphates, which are discharged from wastewater treatment plants and run off of cattle ranches and vineyards. The nutrients have spurred excessive algal growth. The algae choke the river and reduce the level of dissolved oxygen, which is critical for salmon, steelhead trout and other species. While the river is cleaner than it once was, and some riparian habitat has been restored, the feds still consider its steelhead population threatened and its Chinook salmon endangered. As for the native coho salmon? Extinct since the 1960s.
In recent years, the state has limited three Napa Valley cities from discharging treated wastewater into the Napa River during periods of low base flow, a directive that has helped improve water quality to the point where the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board in 2014 recommended lifting its “impaired” classification for nutrients. The board is also preparing its first-ever erosion-control rules for agriculture, with a draft environmental impact report expected this summer.
Chris Malan, Napa County’s most ardent environmentalist, has been working to improve the river for decades. In the early 2000s, she donned a snorkel and mask to survey creeks in the Napa River watershed for steelhead. In her run this year for a seat on the Napa County Board of Supervisors she called for a moratorium on new wineries in Napa County. Her platform did not endear her to the wine industry and she failed to make it past the June 7 primary.
Malan welcomes the state’s new ag-related erosion-control rules, and she gives credit to winegrowers who have worked with the county and state to implement best-management practices on their property. But she strongly opposes delisting the river for nutrients because many of its tributaries are still often choked with algae—a point she made to the water board by presenting video footage of Tulocay Creek, a major tributary of the Napa River. “You couldn’t see the surface of the water,” Malan says. “It was covered with a green mat of algae for as far as you could see.”
Malan says nutrients from vineyards have gone unregulated and must be brought into compliance. “We have to hit the pause button,” she says. “We’ve got to figure out how to get this right, because it’s just not okay to kill all the fish and have people drink polluted water.”
Arcata-based fisheries biologist Patrick Higgins, who has worked on steelhead and salmon restoration for 20 years, also opposes the water board’s recommendation to delist the river. The ongoing drought, he says, plus illegal water diversions and groundwater pumping result in less water to dilute pollutants in the river. Water temperatures are rising and fish populations are trying to hang on, he says. “Steelhead trout now inhabit less than 20 percent of their former habitats in the Napa River basin because of flow diminishment,” he wrote in comments to the water board. Those fish, he said, “will go extinct if more decisive action is not taken.”
Shortly before he died from a stroke at the age of 77, Eisele shared a glass of wine with Mike Hackett. “We took care of the ag preserve, and now we need to take care of the ag watershed,” Eisele told his friend, referring to the valley hillsides and creeks that drain into the river. “There are more very wealthy people and corporations coming into the valley, and they are not interested in the environment. They are only interested in the expansion of their vineyard properties, and the only place left [for them to go] is in the ag watershed. So watch out. Trees are going to start coming down.”
Hackett remembers this talk with his conservation mentor as a call to action, the impetus for crafting a ballot measure called the Water, Forest and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative. The initiative aims to protect the Napa River watershed by tightening restrictions on deforestation, which reduces a hillside’s ability to store groundwater. Without trees to impede it, rain sheets downhill, erodes stream banks, and dumps sediment into the river, degrading fish habitat.
Though supporters gathered more than 6,000 of the 3,900 signatures required to place it on the ballot in November, the county counsel’s office rejected the initiative on a technicality June 10, just four days after the registrar of voters qualified it for the ballot. Attorneys with Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger, the law firm that drafted the initiative, plan to file suit on behalf of its proponents. The firm also drafted and defended appeals to Measure J up to the California Supreme Court.
“We believe that county counsel’s opinion is dead wrong, and that the county acted illegally,” says Robert “Perl” Perlmutter, attorney with Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger. “In our experience, the county’s arguments are those that are typically made by special interest industry groups opposing land-use measures and that the courts have rejected.”
If the initiative is ultimately adopted, developers of new vineyards would be limited to removing no more than 10 percent of oaks from hillside parcels and prohibited from removing most timber within 150 feet of large streams or wetlands. (The state’s proposed erosion-control regulations, now under review, would create best management practices for existing vineyards, while the county’s oak woodland initiative would protect hillsides before they’re converted or re-planted to vines.)
History reveals not only the need for such protections, but for better enforcement and significant penalties as well. In 1989, heavy rains sent tons of silt from a new vineyard on Howell Mountain into the Bell Canyon reservoir, fouling the main drinking-water source for St. Helena. In response, the county enacted a first-ever erosion control ordinance. But eight years later, the Pahlmeyer winery cleared a hillside without a permit. The incident didn’t cause similar erosion and might have gone unnoticed if the property hadn’t been visible from the hillside home of environmentalist Malan. With the help of the Sierra Club and attorney Lippe, Malan successfully sued the county, Pahlmeyer and other wineries for failing to properly evaluate the environmental impact of vineyard projects. Now, all vineyard developments are subject to public review under the powerful California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
Still, proponents of the Water, Forest, and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative don’t believe that CEQA and county regulations will adequately protect the region’s fragile hillsides from projects like the Walt Ranch. Last April, Joy Eldredge, manager of the city of Napa’s Water Division, submitted a withering critique of the project to the county planning department. The project’s environmental impact report, she wrote, failed to demonstrate that it won’t adversely affect the Milliken Reservoir, the city’s highest-quality water source. As the recession recedes and crowding on the valley floor sends vineyards uphill, she predicted, the quality of Napa’s drinking water would decline as its cost rose.
As evidence of what can go wrong, Eldredge points to the city’s other drinking water supply, the Lake Hennessey reservoir. Unchecked fertilizer runoff from upstream vineyards has increased Hennessey’s phosphate and sulfate levels, which have spurred algal growth. The nutrients have also quadrupled the utility’s cleanup costs, which include treating the water with algaecides and chlorine. Unfortunately, this process can also generate byproducts called trihalomethanes, which have been linked to an increased risk of miscarriage, bladder and rectal cancers.
“Caught between long-term trends of increasingly stringent drinking water quality standards on one hand, and increasing county vineyard development approvals on the other,” Eldredge wrote, “the city and its water customers end up bearing the burden of degraded water quality from vineyard development and the need to carry out costly drinking water treatment upgrade projects. The county should prevent the shifting of vineyard development impacts onto the city and its public drinking water customers.”
So far, the cost of treating Lake Hennessey water has not been passed on to customers, but if Lake Milliken were to be tainted by vineyard runoff, Eldredge says, rates would rise to cover the cost of new treatment infrastructure.
The Walt Ranch project will, like other hillside vineyards, employ runoff- and erosion-control systems: engineers will dig on-site retention ponds to hold stormwater, then pipe that flow to nearby creeks. But Lippe says those erosion control methods—which conform to a county ordinance—are fundamentally flawed. Yes, the ponds and pipes can control erosion on the vineyard property and those directly below it, but when that water shoots from a pipe under high pressure offsite, it undercuts streambanks, erodes streambeds and stirs up sediment. The county, says Lippe, “simply hasn’t adjusted its runoff calculation models to account for how water behaves once you put it into a plastic pipe.”
Walt Ranch developers Kathryn and Craig Hall—who moved to the area from Texas, where Craig Hall made his fortune in real estate and was once a part-owner of the Dallas Cowboys—defend the integrity of their project and their commitment to the environment. Their vineyards boast organic certification, and their St. Helena winery was California’s first to win LEED Gold certification. According to its environmental impact report, the project’s erosion-control system will reduce the current flow of sediment off undeveloped land into Milliken Creek by 43 percent, and level spreaders and rock aprons will disperse and filter stormwater ejected from the ranch’s pipe outlets. “We have a good project,” says Mike Reynolds, president of Hall Wines. “We are following the directions of the scientists and the county.” The Halls also promise to remove less than 10 percent of the property’s trees—whether or not the initiative passes—and mitigate that loss by planting trees elsewhere on the ranch and permanently protecting 551 acres of woodlands.
To Stuart Smith, a vocal property rights defender who has owned Smith-Madrone Vineyards & Winery, in the western hills above St. Helena, since 1971, the oak woodland initiative is a solution in search of a problem. If passed, he says, it would force him and other growers to apply for costly permits when they expand or replant their vineyards. Napa Valley winegrowers already face plenty of regulation, he says. Any additional requirements will only serve to drive out small, family-owned wineries like his, leaving only big or corporate-backed wineries—the very operations that “gloom-and-doom environmentalists” rail against. “It’s already happening,” Smith says. “The billionaires are driving the millionaires out.” And if the initiative passes? “My chainsaws are going to be running,” he says. “I’m not going to let these yahoos do this to me.”
Ted Hall, the president and CEO of St. Helena-based Long Meadow Ranch, a winery and diversified farm with 2,500 acres in production in Napa and Humboldt Counties, calls the proposed initiative an anti-farming ruse cloaked in environmentalism. No science backs up the oak woodland initiative, Hall claims, and it could even result in the removal of more non-oak trees and more hillside home development when vineyard-planting and other ag uses become too costly and difficult.
Like many businesspeople, Hall (no relation to Kathryn and Craig Hall) prefers voluntary stewardship to top-down regulation. In 2002, he and a coalition of the wine industry, the Napa County Farm Bureau, environmental groups, and state and local government initiated a program called Fish Friendly Farming certification, which teaches property owners in the Napa River watershed how to reduce bank erosion and flood damage, improve fish habitat and reduce sedimentation. While critics say the program, now called Napa Green, allows for certification after harmful grading and tree removal have already taken place, it does teach best practices in sediment control, and program leaders claim it has substantially reduced the flow of nutrients and sediment into the watershed. According to Ted Hall, more than 40 percent of Napa Valley vineyards have been certified under the program.
Residents of the Napa Valley have long invoked Volker Eisele’s name with reverence. Because he was a landowner, a winemaker and a member of the Farm Bureau, he moved in many different circles, making allies who helped him shape and promote important conservation legislation. But it’s not clear now who has the stature to protect Napa Valley’s remaining natural areas from the wine juggernaut. Napa Vision 2050—a coalition of more than a dozen civic and environmental groups that advocates for responsible planning—is pushing hard against the status quo. Many of its members, plus scores of other volunteers, helped collect signatures for the oak woodland initiative. But the valley’s wine trade groups have united in opposition to its protections, as has the Farm Bureau.
Whatever the outcome of the initiative, Napa Valley’s success as a winegrowing and tourism powerhouse has been, as the commercial broker quipped to the media, a game-changer. Exactly how residents reckon with these changes will define the valley in the months and years ahead. It is a reckoning the prescient Volker Eisele saw coming. “That this could change rapidly, to this day, human beings have trouble believing,” he told an oral historian in 2008.
Harmful development, he said, “can happen more or less overnight if you allow it.”
This article was produced with support from The Food & Environment Reporting Network, a nonprofit investigative news organization.