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No clear answer on whether St. Helena can store water from October storm

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City of St. Helena

It’s still unclear whether St. Helena will be able to keep the water it collected in Bell Canyon Reservoir during the storm of late October.

The permit for Bell Canyon specifies a diversion season starting “about” Nov. 15, which is three weeks after the storm dumped 10 inches of rain into the watershed. The permit had been widely interpreted to mean that water collected before Nov. 15 had to be bypassed into Bell Creek instead of being diverted into the reservoir.

The city asked the California Regional Water Quality Control Board on Nov. 5 to grant a Temporary Urgency Change allowing the city to keep the rainfall for municipal use in light of the drought and St. Helena's Phase II water emergency, which has placed city water customers under mandatory rationing.

In response, a water board representative told the city that a diversion season can’t be expanded through a Temporary Urgency Petition, and the water board was unlikely to issue a temporary permit to store the water retroactively.

“Unfortunately, I am not aware of a mechanism in which you can legally hold the water already captured out of season for later in the year when it will be needed the most,” wrote Scott McFarland, senior WRC engineer at the water board, in an email to City Manager Mark Prestwich.

However, a follow-up email from McFarland noted that the city’s permits specify a storage date beginning “about” Nov. 15, a term that’s common in old water permits and “introduces some ambiguity as (to) the exact diversion dates.”

“You may have an argument that water stored about 11/15 may have been stored under a valid storage season,” McFarland wrote.

As for how many days fall under the term “about,” “I would leave that discussion to attorneys,” McFarland wrote.

Prestwich told the Star the City Council will meet in closed session next Tuesday to discuss a lawsuit filed in June by Water Audit, an environmental advocacy group accusing the city of violating its “public trust” responsibilities in managing its water.

Prestwich declined to comment on whether the city will release the October rainfall into Bell Creek or continue its efforts to keep the water in the reservoir.

The diversion season specified in the city’s permit — from "about" Nov. 15 to April 15 — is intended to protect stream flows during dry months. The Napa River in St. Helena was dry for much of 2021 due to the prolonged drought.

That issue is related to the one at the heart of Water Audit’s legal complaint, which claims the city’s water policies fail to account for the hydrological relationship between groundwater extraction and flows in the Napa River.

Water Audit previously sued the city in 2016 for allegedly diverting too much water into Bell Canyon Reservoir and away from Bell Creek, which flows into the Napa River.

Pam Smithers and Mariam Hansen shot videos showing the effects of Sunday's storm on the Napa River and the flood project, which performed as designed.

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

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