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For the first 100 years of its existence, the city of Napa relied on the Napa River for development and commerce and the livelihood of its citizens.

Until the introduction of the railroad and motor transportation, the river was a means of transportation, communication and commerce for Napa County. Steamships plied the waterway from San Francisco and San Pablo bays to Napa on a regular basis.

It was only natural that early businesses would be located along the river from First Street south to below Third to be near the steamboat landings. The early residential area was also along the river from about Fourth Street to the area of Pine Street.

Unfortunately, with growth comes neglect and abuse. The river became the community disposal system and, with time, became ugly and polluted.

The pollution was caused by human abuse, agriculture, livestock, petroleum products and the leather tanneries along the river.

When my family moved to Napa in 1942, the Napa River was an ugly, polluted waterway, and its only useful function was to carry excess water and some pollutants out of the area. It was a hazard to humans and animals and totally ignored by the population.

The local citizens joked about the river and its pollution. Boaters were reluctant to venture up or down the river.

During its early growth, the city actually turned its back on the river. For over a century, businesses in the downtown area faced away from it.

Other than from the First and Third Street bridges, there were few places downtown where one could leisurely view the river. In fact, nobody wanted to.

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Plus, from Trancas Street to Imola Avenue and beyond to the south, the river and its tributaries were subject to flooding. The Internet resource Wikipedia claims that from 1865 to the present, there were 23 recordable floods with the 1986 flood being the worst.

I was witness to several of those floods and especially remember the Flood of 1986 when 7,000 people were evacuated, 250 homes were destroyed, three people died, and there was an estimated $100 million in damage.

A lot has happened in the last 50 years or so to remedy the problems of the Napa River. Citizens became involved. Government took action to prevent discharges into the river and the tanneries were closed. The river began to cleanse itself and, with time, boats were seen on the water.

Even more changes have taken place in the last 25 years. Old lumber yards, wrecking yards, petroleum distributors and other ecologically unfriendly businesses in the area of the river were eliminated. Chief among the changes was the Napa River Flood Control Project, which, after 20 years or so, is now in its final stages.

Now, a non-polluted and (hopefully) flood-free Napa River is the center of the local universe. Everything downtown is oriented toward it. Many of the riverside eateries have outdoor dining with a river overlook. Old buildings were removed and Veterans Memorial Park was established at a key point on the river. It was recently enlarged and is now a center of community activity.

The Napa Valley Register of Aug. 18, 2015, had a front-page story about a family of river otters that has taken up residence on Tulocay Creek, a river tributary. The cute, cuddly critters are apparently cohabitants with a family of beavers that moved in a year or so ago and have actually constructed a dam on the creek.

On several recent occasions, porpoises have been observed swimming in the river and salmon have been seen on some of the tributaries.

It’s all very exciting, and I am proud of what has happened. I commend those responsible and look forward to the news that more otters, beavers, porpoises and other fish and wildlife are residing in and along the banks of our river — but I still will not swim in it.

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Jim Ford can be contacted at jwford571@gmail.com

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