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Napa Grapegrowers Make a Trade

Grapevines pulled to reshape river, control floods, save salmon run

by Andrew Adams
Napa River flood restoration
A combination of local, county and federal funds paid for this Napa River floodplain restoration project in Rutherford, Calif. The project is one of several along the river being funded through $3.3 million in grant money. Source: EPA
Rutherford, Calif.—Vineyard owner and manager Davie Piña admitted that persuading vineyard owners to sacrifice vines for the sake of juvenile salmon and river sediment wasn’t an easy sell.

“That was probably the hardest part,” said Piña, owner of Piña Vineyard Management LLC and leader of the Rutherford Dust Association’s committee on river restoration. Most Napa Valley growers, he said, either have left the flood-prone river to government management or tried to control erosion by dumping rubble along its banks.

Only in recent years have Piña and his group, among others, found willing listeners for their message: What benefits the river will also help vineyard owners in the long term.

Piña joined other growers as well as U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, top staff from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Napa County Supervisor Diane Dillon on Dec. 9 to announce nearly $3.3 million in federal and local funding to pay for restoration efforts covering 15 miles along the Napa River. According to the EPA, more than 40 growers have committed to converting a total of 135 acres of farmland permanently to wildlife habitat.

Reshaping the riverbed
They convened along the river at the Rutherford Reach, which is being altered from the Napa River’s predominant formation, in which the riverbed in cross-section resembles a narrow “V,” its steeply plunging banks overhung with oaks. Now, nearly a mile of the Reach has been transformed, with an open bank sloping gradually to the bottom.

The broader flow is designed to handle winter storm surges in a more efficient manner than the original, steeper riverbank, which funnels water downstream at higher levels and a swifter pace, undermining riverbanks and triggering their collapse. Faster flows wash more sediment into the river and can flush out juvenile salmon or steelhead as they try to navigate their way downstream to San Francisco Bay and ultimately the Pacific.

A total of  $1.68 million has been earmarked for the entire Rutherford Reach project. About $1 million has already been spent on the west bank, unveiled by officials last week. The east bank, essentially a “before” image of the Napa River system prior to restoration, will be transformed this spring.

Members of the press, politicians, government staff and vineyard owners wandered along the improved bank as they listened to details of the project. Honig Winery, Round Pound Estate and Carpy-Conolly ranch donated land for the restoration.

Jorgen Blomberg, a design team director with Phillip Williams and Associates, a San Francisco consulting firm helping plan the projects, said that when growers agree to an easement on their property, they do not receive compensation for the land value or the cost of lost production.

He said five acres of vines were removed for the finished riverbank project; the east bank project slated for spring will require more acreage. Blomberg said the project would also require removal and replanting of 200 to 220 olive trees. The EPA announced that growers throughout the valley have pledged 20 acres of farmland to restoration efforts. 

Benefits anticipated
Andrew Collison, another designer with Phillip Williams, said restoration efforts also would include removing invasive plant species and habitat restoration to improve the survival rates of juvenile steelhead and salmon and improve the river ecosystem as a whole.

While the growers sacrifice land, they also benefit from better flood control that should limit property loss due to erosion. Removing invasive plant life helps curtail the spread of destructive vineyard pests.

Another major restoration project is expected to be complete by January 2014. The EPA plans to restore 3.9 miles of river in the Oakville-Oak Knoll area south of Rutherford, but it still needs landowner agreements for the $720,000 project.

In November, officials and environmentalists heralded removal of a concrete barrier below a bridge spanning the Napa River near St. Helena. The $1 million project is expected to make it easier for Chinook salmon and steelhead to reach their upriver spawning grounds.

Jared Blumenfeld, administrator for the EPA’s Pacific Southwest Region, said it’s not often that farmers reach out to regulators. In Napa, though, it was the local property owners who first came to the government looking for a way to improve the river. “The story of the Napa River is a great story,” he said. “Farmers, vintners—people who cared about Napa—realized there was a problem with the river.”

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