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Groundwater pumping will be under county scrutiny this summer

As residents in cities in Napa County and throughout California sweat out this summer, the third consecutive in a severe drought gripping the state, and wonder whether runoff from the scant snowpack in the Sierra Nevada will be enough, grapegrower Jim Verhey won’t be joining them.

Verhey, who manages vineyards off of Big Ranch Road north of Napa, said his grapes are in great shape going into the hot months of the summer, with good soil moisture and canopy boosted by the rains in February, March and April. Verhey pumps groundwater to supply his vineyards, unlike city residents who rely on melted snowfall in the distant Sierras — via the State Water Project and the North Bay Aqueduct — for their showers and tap water.

But Verhey is also in an enviable position among some of his fellow grapegrowers, as his vineyards sit on the floor of the Napa Valley, with its so-called “bathtub” of groundwater resting below. Growers and winery owners in the hillsides, which have a more complex geology with more fault lines and thus scarcer places to drill a good well, aren’t similarly as blessed, Verhey acknowledges.

“In the hillsides it’s a whole different ballgame,” said Peter McCrea, chairman of a committee tasked to research the county’s groundwater resources.

This summer, Napa County officials and staff will be examining how the county analyzes whether a winery or vineyard project has adequate groundwater before they’re granted use permits, Public Works Director Steve Lederer told the Board of Supervisors Tuesday. Staff plans to come back to the Planning Commission in August with recommended changes, which could be sent to the supervisors subsequently, he said.

It’s a complicated and potentially politically charged subject dealing with groundwater — long considered a vested property right — and what constitutes adequate environmental review of its potential usage.

Some conservation and environmental groups argue that the county doesn’t require enough analysis, and relies on rules of thumb that don’t reflect the real conditions underground, letting developers drill wells that leave neighbors’ at risk of running dry.

Others, including members of the wine industry, counter that the additional tests and analysis could add tens of thousands of dollars in costs to an already expensive process, pricing out smaller projects pitched by less affluent developers. They also contend that there aren’t enough facts and data to justify such steps.

The work stems from recommendations the groundwater resources advisory committee delivered to the Board of Supervisors in April. After studying groundwater resources throughout the valley through well monitoring for the last several years, the committee concluded that the overall valley floor’s groundwater was in relatively good shape and would fully recharge despite the recent drought.

Its recommendations focused on continued monitoring and working with the wine industry and others on conserving groundwater. But the committee stopped short of reaching a consensus on how to change the water availability analysis, Verhey said.

Old test looks at few factors

The analysis, instituted in 1991, allots groundwater to projects using three general rules — projects on the valley floor are granted one acre-foot of water per acre, in the hillsides it’s half an acre foot per acre, while in the groundwater deficient area near Coombsville it’s .3 acre feet per acre.

If a developer wants to use more water and exceeds other standards, a second test is required that gauges how much water can be pumped in a 24-hour period, reflecting the strength of the groundwater supply underground, Lederer said. That only presents a partial picture, and a consultant hired by the county suggested doing more.

If a well was within 500 feet of a neighbor’s, the new tests would look at how the well would be used, how far away it would be from the neighbor’s well, how it would be built, the hydrogeologic conditions of its location, and if the pumping would affect those, Lederer said.

Depending on if the planning commissioners and the supervisors ultimately support it, these tests could be required for all use permits for wineries and vineyards in the eastern and western hillsides, and provide county planners with a more scientific understanding of these projects’ impacts on groundwater supplies, Lederer said.

“It’s really a more scientific analysis,” Lederer said.

Verhey said the hills, wrought over millions of years by volcanic activity, can often have pockets of water that took eons to fill up, similar to the grooves of an ice tray. Drain that water supply and it could take equally as long to refill, he said.

Other areas have springs, fault lines, and tributaries to the Napa River running through them, making it difficult to say if there’s half an acre foot of groundwater under every acre of land, Verhey said.

“There’s so much volcanic activity,” Verhey said. “The same thing that helps us produce such great grapes makes water such an issue. The matter of a few feet can make a huge difference.”

Gary Margadant, president of the Mount Veeder Stewardship Council, said for this reason it’s incumbent upon the county to require the additional tests in the hillsides.

“The county is going to have to re-examine it because there just isn’t the water,” Margadant said. “It’s not the bathtub at the bottom of the valley.”

He said the situation often leads growers in the Mount Veeder appellation to truck water up from the city of Napa, which has undoubtedly been worsened by the severe drought in recent years.

“I’m just watching the water trucks go by my house right now,” said Margadant, who lives on Oak Knoll Avenue. “(Additional tests are) the only way that you can tell what’s really going on. The county just can’t assume that the water’s there.”

Critics say new test adds cost

But McCrea said the planning commissioners and staff already have this tool available to them, and can request that developers perform this analysis if they feel it’s warranted. Making it a blanket requirement could add substantial costs to projects’ application processes. Lederer said the average cost of the additional tests in the foothills are about $5,000 per applicant, which can amount to loose change for wealthy winery and vineyard developers.

“The Planning Commission always has the right to request this if there’s some reason to believe these estimates are not appropriate,” McCrea said. “They can request more specific information.”

Donna Oldford, owner of Plans4Wine, a consulting firm that specializes in winery use permits, said the lowest amount she’s seen one of her clients pay for such studies was $30,000, while the highest was about $75,000.

That doesn’t seem like much compared to a project whose overall cost may be in the $4 million to $5 million range, Oldford admits. The tests can take months to complete, however, and the delays can add $500,000 to $1 million in added costs if the winemaker has to continue doing custom crush for another season, plus increases in construction costs, she said.

Coupled with the expense of doing traffic studies winery developers have been required to do in the use-permit process, Oldford estimates the cost of a use permit has doubled in recent years. Some people just can’t afford it, Oldford said.

“I see a lot of them unable to achieve their dream because they can’t afford it,” Oldford said. “Unfortunately, a winery is becoming for fewer and fewer people because of costs. Having a winery is someone’s life’s dream. It breaks my heart to say, ‘I’m sorry, you can’t afford it and you can’t afford the homework.’ ”

Groundwater usage makes for an inviting target for opponents to winery projects, Oldford said, while property owners are uneasy with doing tests about their groundwater supplies that could be kept in public records with the county, allowing neighbors to see.

“This is an easy target for people to attack a project,” Oldford said. “Sometimes it’s a valid point. Sometimes it’s a red herring. If you do that, you produce these reports. They go into a proprietary file in the county. They don’t want that information on file at the county.”

Some say new tests not enough

Some environmental groups argue that even the extra tests looking at impacts on nearby wells aren’t enough. Margadant said the county must also gauge how groundwater pumping affects surface water supplies such as streams or creeks, which are vital for endangered salmon and steelhead species.

That kind of monitoring would provide data on the impact pumping could have on surface water. It’s an issue that cropped up several years ago, when a property owner named David Dunphy tried to plant additional acres of vineyard on his property on Dry Creek Road, but ran into stiff opposition from an environmental organization, Earth Defense for the Environment Now (EDEN).

EDEN argued that the project would cause more runoff and sedimentation into Dry Creek, a tributary to the Napa River, and strain the water table with its irrigation needs. The group wanted Dunphy to do an environmental impact report gauging the environmental impacts of the project, which would have required substantial costs. Dunphy ultimately dropped the project.

The notion of gauging wells’ relationship with surface water was examined at the groundwater committee, but wasn’t ultimately supported, Lederer said. Margadant advocates studying it in greater depth to ensure equitable, environmentally sound use of groundwater. Well monitoring currently is a voluntary process, and largely focused on the valley floor, the Coombsville area, and in Carneros.

“There’s going to have to be monitoring up in the mountains,” Margadant said. “I just don’t want to see the county moving forward with any sort of conjecture. Water is going to have to be a resource that’s monitored and measured.”

Verhey conceded that the groundwater committee lacked enough knowledge about the hillsides to fully address them.

“I think that was the hurdle we came up with,” Verhey said. “I don’t think there’s a simple answer to places like Mount Veeder or Howell Mountain. You have to look at every single situation on its merits.”

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