My husband and I have had vineyards in Napa County for over 35 years. Our Dry Creek Road ranch was one that did not burn, thanks to the many first responders and to the temperamental wind. We are certified biodynamic organic farmers and believe agriculture and the native local ecology can co-exist in healthy balance, but only with active respect for the needs of the larger ecological system.
To this end, I want to address fire in our zoning-designated Ag Watershed Open Space lands. Even though our own ranch did not burn, we know it’s only a matter of time until it does. Fire is an important part of the ecology of Napa County. Our warming planet means we will have even more fire—and we need to plan for it. We need fire, but it needs to move through quickly and with less intensity.
While vineyards acted as firebreaks in a number of circumstances in this last fire, how many of those vineyards were irrigated? In a time of change of climate, water will become increasingly scarce, as it has been these last years. Do we have enough water in our Ag Watershed Open Space lands, which have a different geology from the valley floor and much less ground water, to realistically consider using irrigated vineyards as firebreaks?
Farming with the environment means growing what can co-exist with the facts on the ground of water, soils, and temperature. At least 80 percent of our vines in Napa were dry farmed before the French blind tasting in the 1970s. Pushing vines for production by irrigation is something we need to reconsider into the future. Do dry farmed grapes perform as well as irrigated vines for firebreaks?
Our Ag Watershed Open Space lands are key to the water supply of our cities. Oak woodlands and forests restore ground water; irrigated vineyards use it. The reason we had such a catastrophe was not because we have oak woodlands and forests but because we have not managed our so-called wild lands for two centuries, ever since the white man arrived, allowing underbrush and understory to build up. The health of Napa County environment is dependent on how we manage the forests and oak woodlands.
Oak woodlands and forests do not contaminate our surface and ground water with agricultural fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides. As important organs of the watersheds, they protect the water supply from silt and erosion. Pure, abundant water for our population is dependent on the health of our watersheds.
The fires necessitate that we rethink our approach to the watersheds. There is so much scientific research that says do not cut these burned areas, let them recover — that the best action is no action. This is a time for our governing officials to bow their heads to scientific research, not succumb to political pressure for business as usual.
The health of our beautiful valley begins at the top of the mountains in the Ag Watershed Open Space lands. Our water supply is dependent on this health. Oak woodlands and forests are important components to aquifer recharge, to the health of the Napa River and our reservoirs, and to clean and abundant water for all of us.
Water and Fire remind us of our connection to each other. What we each do on our own land affects us all. Advocate that our county officials pause, allow our burned lands to regenerate, and take steps to manage the understory of our oak woodlands and forests that have not burned. Our population is dependent on it.
Vineyards don’t save lives; water does.