Napa Valley growers sacrifice land for new project

December 9, 2011 8:01:08 PM PST
The Napa River is getting a new look in the name of flood and erosion control and on Friday Napa County announced it's getting millions of dollars for more projects that have local vineyards cooperating by giving up valuable land.

The land still belongs to the vineyard owners, but they have agreed to convert about 135 acres to become a wildlife habitat. In return, they hope to get better flood protection and the EPA hopes to bring back the salmon population.

The Napa River is barely flowing now, but during the rainy season, it can be a raging torrent -- and that's the problem. Rushing water eats away at the riverbank making it impossible for fish to spawn and it can sometimes flood nearby vineyards causing expensive damage.

"A lot of debris was clogging the river and so basically, we had to give up land and space in order to widen the river, to make it a healthier environment, and to bring it back to a sustainable being," said Regina Weinstein from Honig Vineyard and Winery.

One berm used to be covered in grape vines. About two dozen vineyards let the government use their land to carve out large wide spots in the Napa River in order to slow down the flow of water and to reduce the risk of flooding for local growers.

"The berms will all be exactly at the same height, so everybody will get a little bit of water and not any one vineyard will get all of the water. So it will significantly reduce the damage," said Chris Pedemonte, a vineyard manager.

Friday federal and local officials announced Napa County would be getting more than $3 million to widen additional portions of the river. About half of the money would come from the federal government and the rest from a half-cent local sales tax increase.

The idea is to slow down the flow by building alcoves jutting out from the main riverbed. A computer animation shows pools to the side of the river would have water not moving as rapidly. The fast pace of the river has chewed away at the riverbanks causing sediment to build up.

"The sentiment has lots of different problems. The one for the salmon is that they can't spawn, the fish eggs aren't able to attach to the gravel underneath because so much sediment on the top," said Jared Blumenfeld, an EPA regional administrator.

The walls of the riverbank are about 30 feet high. In a wet winter, the water would be at least high enough to where fish could get out of the swift current of the river, rather than being swept into the bay.

Workers are in the process of planting trees and other vegetation in time for this rainy season.

"This is good for the environment. It's good for wildlife. It's good for the fisheries. It's the right thing to do," said Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena.

This project covers about 4.5 miles. They expect it to be at the halfway point sometime next year. The ultimate goal is to use 15 miles of the river, using the area in Rutherford as a prototype for other erosion control projects.


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