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RUTHERFORD — A humble stretch of the Napa River in Rutherford got its 15 minutes of fame Friday.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency staff, Rep. Mike Thompson, county Supervisor Diane Dillon and a host of partner agencies set up a temporary camp on the riverbank to recognize restoration efforts.

Signs posted on Rutherford Cross Road directed guests to a “press event.” Crews from KGO and CBS attended. The EPA sent its own video journalist to document the event. A San Francisco Chronicle photographer circled the presenters as they spoke at the portable microphone.

Guests sitting on hay bales could witness the river “before” and “after” restoration.

On one side, newly terraced banks had been shaved down to create a gradual contour. Grasses and willows had been planted to stabilize the banks, and burlap-covered berms were in place to keep sediment from washing into the river. Resting places had been developed for the fish to take cover during times of heavy flows.

In contrast, the other unimproved side displayed the canyon-like effects from erosion.

The county, in cooperation with adjacent landowners, embarked several years ago to restore 4.5 miles of Napa River near Rutherford at a cost of $15 million, half financed by the local flood control tax, the rest by grants, including EPA money.

On Friday, officials announced $1.5 million from the EPA  to pay for further river restoration and other environmental projects.

The EPA grant will:

• Restore a nearly mile-long section of the Napa River in Rutherford to improve steelhead and Chinook habitat and water quality.

• Complete restoration design for an additional 3.9 miles of the Napa River in Oakville and eradicate

5 acres of invasive non-native Arundo and plant native riparian trees.

• Assist ranchers to reduce erosion on 80 percent of Napa watershed grazing lands.

• Implement steps to reduce sediment runoff from rural roads and stream crossings throughout the watershed.

• Establish a tracking system to advance water quality improvements through increased accountability.

EPA is supporting two major restoration efforts covering 15 miles of the Napa River from Zinfandel Lane south to Oak Knoll. To date, more than 40 landowners have committed to converting 135 acres of riverfront farmland to wildlife habitat, a news release said.

“It’s valuable property, but we have to be stewards of the land and the environment,” said Regina Weinstein of Honig Vineyard and Winery, which produces sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon in the heart of the restoration area. “We want the land to be here and be healthy in the future, so we can pass on the business to future generations.”

“We wanted to do something for the community and environment,” said grower Andy Beckstoffer who attended Friday’s event.

Having lived around the valley for 40 years, “This is a dream come true,” he said.

“We have some of the most biodynamic and organic growers in Napa,” said Davie Piña, of Piña Vineyard Management, and chairperson of the Rutherford Dust Restoration team. “We are close to nature and we wanted to do something positive.”

Historically, vineyard owners built levees along the river to prevent flooding, but this channelization sped up river flows and erosion, degrading the habitat for fish.

Now, property owners are conceding some land so that the river can spread out in floods and become more of a natural waterway. This is happening in a special partnership of owners, local government and state and regional natural resource agencies.

“It’s not just a drainage ditch anymore,” Piña said. “It’s amazing how the animals are moving back in. We have three or four beaver dams and the river otters are waiting for our first rainstorm because they know the salmon will start coming up. It’s changing rapidly, quite rapidly.”

Pina said he’s proud of the project. “It’s something we’ll be able to cherish for generations,” he said. “We hope we can repeat this on every river.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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