With the Napa Pipe project due before the Napa County Planning Commission on Wednesday afternoon, one of the largest unanswered questions looming over the development is where will it get water.
Project plans call for purchasing water from the city of Napa, or if the city is unwilling, to take water from Mill Creek 150 miles away in Tehama County and bring it down the Sacramento River and through the North Bay Aqueduct.
Each plan faces significant hurdles before a drop of water is delivered to the proposed residential development for 700 to 945 housing units and a Costco store just south of the city of Napa.
The developers, Napa Redevelopment Partners, have requested water from the city, and have an option agreement with the Orange Cove Irrigation District to purchase its water right to 2 percent of the natural flow of Mill Creek, or about 2,000 acre-feet annually. Mill Creek is a tributary to the Sacramento River.
The city of Napa, whose officials have been vocally opposed to the project, responded to the developers’ request with a letter on Sept. 27. The city affirmed its belief that selling the water to a residential development outside city limits would require approval of the Napa County Local Agency Formation Commission, according to the letter.
The letter argued that the most logical way to do this would be to include the Napa Pipe site within the city’s “sphere of influence,” which would increase the city’s role in the site’s planning. The site sits in the unincorporated area, and its planning has been handled by the Napa County Planning Department. After the county Planning Commission makes its recommendation, the Napa County Board of Supervisors would make the final decision on whether to build the project.
“If we are going to extend water it requires a very formal process,” City Manager Mike Parness said. “It doesn’t mean we wouldn’t or couldn’t do it.”
The developers have disputed the city’s assertion that the site would need to be brought into its sphere of influence, and contend that the city has enough water to sell to the development.
They could face a thornier situation if they decided to pursue the Mill Creek water. The creek is one of three in California with runs of spring Chinook salmon, which is a protected species under state and federal law, said Burt Bundy, president of the Mill Creek Conservancy.
Drawing down the creek by a downstream user such as Napa Pipe would disrupt a balance that the Los Molinos Mutual Water Company is trying to strike between managing flows for fish while providing supplies to local irrigators, said Darrell Mullins, the general manager for Los Molinos.
Mullins asserted that the drawdown of 2 percent of flows would have an impact on the irrigators, the fish, or both. Impacting fish runs in California is an easy way to invite controversy, he said. A sale to the Napa Pipe site would be the only water delivered out of Mill Creek’s watershed, he said.
“They take the water out of Mill Creek, it’s impacting the fish, and then everybody in the world’s going to get involved,” Mullins said. “It’s going to impact my irrigators, to what degree I’m not sure.”
The Napa Pipe project has turned to possibly using Mill Creek or the city of Napa because of objections to the project using the groundwater beneath it. Napa County has a long-standing policy that groundwater’s primary use should be for agriculture or in rural areas.
Mullins noted the irony in the prospect of taking irrigation water from Tehama County and using it for a residential development 150 miles away in Napa, with the goal of protecting agricultural water in Napa County.
“We have concerns about exporting ag water for urban users, and protecting your groundwater for ag,” Mullins said. “There’s some irony there, I’m sure.”
Fergus Morrissey, the engineer-manager for the Orange Cove Irrigation District in Southern California disputed some of the assertions.
Morrissey said his district purchased the water right in the late 1990s expressly for the purpose of benefiting fish, following the enactment of the federal Central Valley Project Improvement Act in 1992.
Morrissey said his district came up with the idea of purchasing the water and diverting it downstream for fish in lieu of paying the federal government a per-acre-foot charge connected with the legislation.
Those plans were scuttled, however, and Morrissey said his district never did anything with the right it purchased. Through an agreement with Los Molinos, Morrissey said Orange Cove currently lets the water be used in Tehama County. Orange Cove started marketing it several years ago, and came into contact with a representative for Napa Redevelopment Partners, he said.
Sending the water downstream to Napa Pipe accomplishes a similar goal to the district’s original intent — keeping water in the river channel, Morrissey said.
“It’s kind of been spent in holding,” Morrissey said of the water. “This Napa Pipe project would accomplish the same intent, which is to leave it in the channel. It kind of kills two birds with one stone.”
Napa County has responded to some of the concerns expressed by Bundy regarding the Napa Pipe project. In its response, the county asserted that the drawdown would increase flows of lower Mill Creek in the spring and fall, which it claimed was consistent with the management agreement.
As for impacts to users in Tehama County, Napa County asserted that those would be limited to the loss of Orange Cove’s water, which Tehama users are currently benefiting from free of charge.
Morrissey said he was unclear of the process for selling and delivering the water to the Napa Pipe project. The right pre-dates 1914, leading Morrissey to believe the sale could be completed without the involvement of the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, although he wasn’t certain of that.
Bundy disagreed with his interpretation, and said the sale would certainly involve getting permission from regulatory agencies.
Bundy called the right “paper water” and without a guarantee that once it left Tehama County it would ever be delivered to Napa Pipe.
“We don’t believe the water they have a right to is actually going down the Sacramento at the present time,” Bundy said. “It’s a paper water right, as far as I’m concerned.”
Morrissey disagreed with that, and said the right has been used historically to allocate water.
“There is record of its use,” Morrissey said. “It doesn’t make any sense to say it’s paper water.”
Bundy asserted that delivering the water by pumping it through Barker Slough and the North Bay Aqueduct would trigger its own set of regulatory problems.
“You run it through the Delta and it opens up Pandora’s Box,” Bundy said. “They’d have a long way to go.”
Mullins pledged to fight the delivery of Mill Creek water to Napa Pipe, possibly by objecting to it on the grounds that its cumulative impact would be detrimental to other users in Tehama County.
His water company, although a smaller one in the context of California, would pursue legal options to stop the delivery, and feels it would disrupt a difficult balance of managing Mill Creek’s water for irrigators and fish.
“It’s devastating for us to go up against the big developers and the big bucks,” Mullins said. “Everybody I talk to says, ‘You want to pump more water out of the Delta? Good luck with that.’ ”