Defying historical trends, vineyard acreage worth millions of dollars is being taken out of production so the Napa River will have room to flood and fish can thrive.
Over the past two summers, 10 acres of vines have been ripped out, allowing berms to be pushed back as much as 50 feet on both sides of the river.
Ultimately, more than 18 acres of high-priced grapes will be converted to flood terraces and riparian habitat, transforming a 4.5-mile stretch of river between Zinfandel Lane and Oakville Cross Road into a rough version of its historic self, said Gretchen Hayes, a consultant to the Rutherford Reach Restoration Project.
Expansion of the river and rollback of vineyard are the result of a precedent-setting agreement between vineyard owners who belong to the Rutherford Dust Society and the county.
John Williams, owner of Frog’s Leap Winery, calls it “the largest privately mitigated restoration program in the country.”
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Why are 23 owners voluntarily giving up some of the most valuable agricultural land in the United States?
Call it enlightened self-interest, Williams said. The acreage being given back to the river would flood frequently, requiring costly repairs, he said.
Over the past century and a half, farmers had pushed their fields and vineyards close to the river’s edge, occupying real estate needed for high water, Hayes said.
“This is a part of history lovingly called the berm wars,” Hayes said. One neighbor would build a berm to ward off flooding, shifting the problem to a neighbor who would respond with a berm of his own.
Now that the river is straitjacketed with mounded dirt, “it’s been an ongoing battle to keep the river from claiming what it thought was his,” Williams said.
“There is always give and take between what nature wants and the farmer wants,” he said. “We have to give back to the river or it will attempt to take it back on its own.”
The Rutherford Restoration Project, a decade in the making, was initiated by growers, Williams said. The project wouldn’t work if only a few property owners participated. The majority had to be convinced that giving up land made long-term economic sense, he said.
Davie Peña of Peña Vineyard Management became a supporter after the 2005 flood did $75,000 worth of damage to an acre of vineyard and the berm that was supposed to protect it.
The status quo wasn’t sustainable, Peña said. River banks were becoming steeper and deeper, with constant erosion. Floods were becoming more costly.
The support of vineyard owners is all the more noteworthy in light of what happened in 2004 when the county and a conservation group put two measures on the ballot mandating agricultural stream setbacks countywide. Both measures were handily defeated after they were opposed by property rights advocates.
As a voluntary effort, the Rutherford Restoration Project has been without controversy.
Before the restoration project could be rebuilt, supporters had to get approval from a laundry list of environmental agencies that had clamped down on river alterations by individual owners.
“In the past, all the agencies said, ‘Don’t touch the river,’” Peña said.
Using specialists in river design, the Rutherford Restoration Project came up with a plan to temper flooding while improving wildlife habitat, Rick Thomasser of the Napa flood control district said.
A sense of the new order can be had at Quintessa Estate, where last summer the bank was rolled back some 75 feet and dropped 10 feet, creating a flood terrace that is now planted with spindly native trees and bushes.
“We won’t be around to see the grandeur of what we’re doing, but we’re setting the river on a healthier, more sustainable future,” Thomasser said.
As part of river reconstruction, structures will be installed to promote steelhead and Chinook salmon spawning, Thomasser said. As trees grow, they will provide cooling shade that these native species need.
Recontouring the full four-and-a-half miles is estimated to cost $15 million and take the better part of a decade. The county half-cent flood control sales tax is paying half, with the rest coming from grants, including federal economic stimulus dollars, Thomasser said.
The section north of Rutherford Cross Road is more impaired than the stretch to the south, requiring more earthmoving, Hayes said.
Conservationists are hoping that a similar kind of river restoration project will follow between Oakville Cross Road and Oak Knoll Avenue near Napa’s northern border.
Since last summer, six landowners have removed 10 acres of vines. Three acres will be replanted after the river channel is reshaped. The value of the seven permanently lost acres is $2.1 million, Hayes said.
Lost grape production over the next 20 years will total $1.6 million, Hayes said. Owners have spent $400,000 in other vineyard relocation costs, she said.
Property owners will be assessing themselves almost $100,000 a year to maintain the restored river. If serious clogs occur in the main channel after heavy rains, project sponsors will have the authority to break them up, Thomasser said.
Vineyards along the Rutherford reach of the Napa River will still flood in major storms, but the flood waters should be slower, reducing damage, he said.
The Napa Valley is fortunate that most of man’s development impacts over the past two centuries have been agricultural, said Jonathan Koehler, a biologist with the Resources Conservation District.
The ecosystems of most Bay Area waterways have been more radically altered by housing and industry, Koehler said. “If you have a choice, take ag.”
According to recent surveys, most of the fish in the river north of Napa are native species. It’s the opposite in the Sacramento Delta, where exotic species have taken over, Koehler said.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that steelhead and salmon populations are maybe 10 percent of what they were historically, he said.
“We’re at a point that gives us hope,” Koehler said. “By no means are we beyond the point that restoration won’t work.”㌳