Row after row, acre after acre, the Upvalley vineyards stun visitors with their precise beauty, while producing the esteemed grapes that fuel the Napa Valley’s economic engine.

But not all is well in wine paradise.

Rick Thomasser, the local flood district’s watershed manager, pulls off Highway 29 and drives through the vines behind Sequoia Grove Vineyards. 

The vines are thriving, but the Napa River, the artery that flows the length of the valley, is in trouble. Arriving at river’s edge, Thomasser points to a cascade of problems.

Big gulps of bank have fallen some 20 feet into the riverbed, leaving a vertical wall of raw earth and exposed tree root. “The river is chewing away at this bank,” he said.

With every winter storm, more bank falls in. In extreme high water, the river roars out of its channel, sweeping away vines, trellises and irrigation lines.

This problem is largely of man’s making, Thomasser said. Wanting to protect homes and crops, property owners up and down the valley have straightened and bermed waterways and eliminated side channels.

After 150 years of meddling, today’s river moves faster, cuts ever deeper and floods more often, he said.

Steve Allen, Sequoia Grove’s vineyard manager, said his vines have sustained thousands of dollars in damage from flooding. The bank is so unstable these days that he’s had to stop running tractors near the river.

Thirty years ago, Allen said he could hear steelhead and Chinook salmon surging upstream to spawn. Today, the river is quiet, most of the big fish gone, he said. 

Allen blames government regulations that have prevented landowners from hauling out vegetation that clogs the main channel.

Erosion is another culprit, Thomasser said. Sediment from washed-out banks smothers gravel beds needed for spawning. When the banks lose their tree cover, the water becomes too warm for native species.

During 40 years of canoeing on the Napa River, Jim Hench has witnessed what many call a disturbing development north of Trancas Street.

In the early years, he could only paddle a half mile above Trancas before running out of tidal surge from San Pablo Bay. Now, he can canoe as much as one and a quarter miles.

The water didn’t get higher; the riverbed got deeper, allowing brackish water to intrude further upstream, he said.

Because of erosion, the riverbed at some Upvalley locations is as much as 20 feet below what it was in the 1850s, Thomasser said. “It’s amazing, actually.”

Gretchen Hayes, a geomorphologist, a scientist who studies how land changes over time, said the construction of berms and the elimination of side channels have propelled river flows faster and faster. When a river is straitjacketed, “it’s like putting your thumb on a hose,” she said.

Between 1972 and 2004, the riverbed dropped 13 feet at one location, Hayes said. “We’re starting to hit bedrock.” 

The Napa Valley landscape of today bears little resemblance to what the first settlers saw, said Robin Grossinger, a scientist at the San Francisco Estuary Institute.

“It has been transformed radically,” Grossinger said. “Nobody alive has ever seen the Napa River and the Napa Valley in its full glory.”

The settlers found a valley dotted with oak savannas and pockets of forest. The valley was a much wetter place, he said. Streams came off the hills but never reached the river. They fanned out, creating sloughs and summer wetlands.

To the pioneers, all this water was a problem, Grossinger said. They began straightening streams and draining marshes, creating conditions needed for homesteading and farming.

“This is what we do,” said Shari Gardner, an ecologist under contract with Friends of the Napa River. “We modify our environment and make it more comfortable for us.”

Chris Malan, a crusader for a healthy Napa Valley watershed, says the environmental record of the past century and a half is shameful. “We point a finger at the shredding of the Amazon, but what are we doing in our own backyard?” she said.

For a glimpse of the Napa Valley as it was, Gardner takes a guest up Highway 29, pulling off the roadway near Bothe Napa Valley State Park. 

She stops by a thicket of buckeyes and oaks bordering Mill Creek east of the highway. To a tourist looking for panoramic vistas and trophy wineries, this clump of forest is a meaningless blip. But not to Gardner. To her, this is a remnant of primeval riparian forest.

This patch of original landscape was never logged or developed, Gardner said. The pioneer Lyman family owned it for almost a century before deeding the two acres for preservation.

Mill Creek is a wild stream, heavily shaded as it passes through the former Lyman property. It exits into a much different landscape — a brilliantly sunny grape monoculture.

Gardner stoops and picks up a sharp-edged flake of black obsidian. Native Americans once chipped arrow heads here, she said. Today, they would hardly recognize the place.

Nailing down all the ways that the landscape has changed since the early 1800s is no easy task. The Napa River Watershed Historical Ecology Project, a collaboration between the San Francisco Estuary Institute, Friends of the Napa River and the Napa County Resources Conservation District, is seeking answers.

“It’s the most obvious question in the world: What did this place look like?” Grossinger said. 

Just because a stream is in one location today is no guarantee that it was there 100 years ago, he said. People assume that the valley was forested throughout, but that’s not so, he said.

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To assemble a picture of the past, the project has studied thousands of historical records — ground and aerial photos, survey reports, journals, land grant records, sketches and paintings.

The pioneers wrote a lot about the flora and fauna, Gardner said. They described the Napa Valley as a Shangri-La loaded with elk and grizzlies, geese darkened the sky, wildflowers grew in profusion, grass reached as high as a horse.

Are these accounts true or should they be taken with a grain of salt? she asked. 

The historical ecology project plans to publish a Napa Valley Historical Ecology Atlas next year that reconstructs how the Napa Valley looked at the time of European settlement.

The early Napa Valley was a “big sponge,” with a “mosaic of wetlands” that no longer exists, Grossinger said. Drier land supported savannas dotted with majestic oaks that delighted the new arrivals.

The valley today is home to more than 100,000 people. The agricultural land is among the nation’s most valuable.

As great as the changes have been here, far worse ecological damage has occurred elsewhere, he said. The Napa Valley is at least a rough facsimile of its old self.

“The river is still in the right place,” he said, “and that’s pretty remarkable.”

“I think the Ag Preserve was a stroke of genius,” Gardner said. By setting a strong pro-agriculture policy in the 1960s, the county warded off more drastic alterations to the Napa Valley. “We’re fortunate we have so much left,” she said.

People have a higher environmental consciousness today, Grossinger said. Most of the past degradations to the natural landscape would no longer be tolerated.

Fifty years ago, the river through Napa was a virtual cesspool, Phill Blake, a conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said. Sewers, tanneries and slaughterhouses dumped into the river.

The federal government lists the Napa River as “impaired” because of excessive sediment, pathogens and nutrients, but it’s much cleaner than in those shameful times, Blake said.

“We are beyond that low point,” said Jonathan Koehler, a senior biologist with the Resource Conservation District, who swims and snorkels in the river to count fish.

“I’ve done it for eight years and never gotten sick yet,” he said.

(Next Sunday: A report on ongoing efforts to restore miles of river and thousands of acres of wetlands to a more natural condition.) 



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