Napa County is finishing up revised groundwater policies designed to make certain new hillside wineries and other large, proposed projects don’t suck aquifers dry.
Applicants would have to calculate the water to be used and water recharge available for specific sites. The county said a more formulaic approach works in rural Napa Valley, but not on hillsides and in places such as Carneros with complicated, fractious rock aquifers.
California is famous for water wars, and is amid a four-year drought that has made water issues even more contentious. Still, the Napa County Planning Commission on Wednesday gave its blessing to groundwater policy revisions after hearing concerns, but no outright opposition.
“The outcome is fabulous and, indeed, pioneering,” Planning Commission Michael Basayne said.
County Public Works Director Steven Lederer said the proposed groundwater policy revisions protect applicants by making certain they have enough water for projects, protect neighbors with wells and protect the environment.
If Wednesday’s hearing is an indicator, the county Board of Supervisors will hear few dissenting voices when it considers granting final approval to the proposed revisions in May.
The Mount Veeder Stewardship Council has repeatedly addressed groundwater issues when various new winery and vineyards proposals have come up. It has pressed the county to make sure that new wells for major rural uses won’t draw down aquifers and hurt neighbors.
“We had a lot of concerns based on our history up on the mountain and dealing with applicants,” council President Gary Margadant told commissioners. “We wanted to make ensure the neighbors were well-represented in this. And I think they have been. I really compliment you on this final document.”
Meanwhile, Napa County’s wine industry has been closely watching the proposed groundwater revisions.
“Staff did an amazing job putting this document together and finding a great balance that works for everybody,” said Michelle Benvenuto, executive director of Winegrowers of Napa County.
Some concerns remained, though nobody asked the commission to vote down the proposed rule changes.
Sandy Elles, executive director of Napa Valley Farm Bureau, said site-specific groundwater studies could lead to battles of “dueling experts.” She urged caution, flexibility and a one-year review after the revisions are adopted.
“This is an issue fraught with technical difficulties, legal difficulties and political difficulties,” Elles said.
The county has long had groundwater policies for large rural projects. An applicant for a Napa Valley floor project can often avoid additional groundwater studies if the project would use one acre-foot of water or less per acre per year. The threshold for the Milliken-Sarco-Tulocay area east of the city of Napa is .03 acre-foot of water per acre per year.
But the county decided the hillside threshold criteria of 0.5 acre-foot per acre per year hasn’t worked because groundwater availability at any particular site varies too much.
Lederer said the Woolls Ranch Winery approved by the county last year for the Mount Veeder hillside area provides an example of using the new method.
“They started applying a standard threshold,” Lederer said. “The more analysis you did, the more you realized that was a scientifically inadequate way of looking at things.”
Applicants seeking ministerial county approvals for such things as single-family homes won’t have to apply the groundwater policies.
The groundwater policy revision proposals generated controversy at various times over the past two years. But on Wednesday, the various sides seemed to have made their peace. That comes at a time when Napa County growth issues are increasingly controversial.
“Maybe it’s a hopeful sign for the future,” Lederer said. “Even though people come at these things from various angles, there could well be common ground that works for everybody.”