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Amid severe drought, St. Helena's Napa water deliveries fall short

Amid severe drought, St. Helena's Napa water deliveries fall short

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As St. Helenans cope with water rations amid the worst drought since the 1970s, the city took only 487 of the 600 acre-feet it was contractually obligated to buy from Napa in the last fiscal year.

City Manager Mark Prestwich said he plans to write a letter asking Napa to reduce St. Helena’s water bill or deliver the remaining 113 acre-feet from St. Helena’s 2020-2021 allotment, even though the fiscal year ended on June 30.

Without such an agreement, St. Helena would remain bound by the contractual requirement to buy all 600 acre-feet at $2,531.86 per acre-foot, including roughly $285,720 for water it never received.

Prestwich said low water pressure was one reason St. Helena didn’t take the full 600 acre-feet.

When Napa water flows north into St. Helena, the pressure needs to be sufficient to overcome the pressure of St. Helena’s own water system, which is pushing water south.

The Rutherford pump station, which pumps Napa water into St. Helena, shuts down to prevent damage when pressure falls to a certain level, Prestwich said.

After Napa switched its water source from Lake Hennessey to the Jamison Canyon Water Treatment Plant on Nov. 20, the pressure of the Napa water fell dramatically, Prestwich said.

The amount of Napa water reaching St. Helena dropped from 53 acre-feet in November to 1.4 acre-feet in December, 0.36 acre-feet in January, 8.9 acre-feet in February, and back up to 55 acre-feet in March, according to the city’s monthly water reports.

The increase in February and March corresponds with Napa’s switch from Jamison back to Hennessey on Feb. 8.

“We believe had the pressure been high we would have been able to (receive) over 55 acre-feet monthly,” accounting for the remaining 113 acre-feet, Prestwich said.

Napa officials have applied for a grant to upgrade the Dwyer Road pump station to boost the pressure of the Napa water connection — especially the water from Jamison Canyon — and make it easier for the water to get to St. Helena. In the meantime, Napa will install a temporary pump to boost pressure.

The failure of a pump at St. Helena’s Rutherford pump station was another factor, Prestwich said. The facility was offline for about eight days until it was repaired.

Prestwich also pointed to turnover in the Public Works Department, including the departure of multiple staff members who played key roles in running the water system. Public Works Director Erica Ahmann Smithies left in March to become public works director in American Canyon. Mark Rincón took over on June 30.

On top of the 600 acre-feet St. Helena must pay for, the Napa contract provides an option for up to 200 additional acre-feet annually, provided St. Helena requests the water and Napa has sufficient supplies.

The state water project is reducing deliveries to Napa due to the drought, but Napa officials have still offered to sell up to 180 additional acre-feet this year, Prestwich said. That water would be part of the 2021-2022 contract year.

City officials had hoped to maximize their use of Napa water and groundwater from the Stonebridge wells to reduce the burden on Bell Canyon Reservoir, which is at less than 37% of capacity after an extremely dry rainy season.

The Stonebridge wells were tapped for 575 acre-feet in the 2020-2021 water year, accounting for 34.6% of the city’s total water delivery, compared with 363 acre-feet (21.5%) in 2019-2020.

The rest of St. Helena’s water portfolio consisted of 601 acre-feet from Bell Canyon (36.1%) and 487 acre-feet from Napa (29.3%).

St. Helena remains under a Phase II water emergency with mandatory rations. City officials say that if conservation efforts continue at their current rate, the city should be able to avoid a Phase III emergency, as long as the next rainy season provides sufficient rain.

Water Safety Roundtable: Staff from the Napa County Sheriff's Office, Environmental Health and EMS provide a summer safety briefing. Courtesy of Napa County

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You can reach Jesse Duarte at 967-6803 or jduarte@sthelenastar.com.

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