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Lawsuit demands monitoring, fish protection at Yountville-area reservoir

Rector Spillway

CalVet is facing a lawsuit over water releases filed by Water Audit California, a group allied with Grant Reynolds, who earlier sued Calistoga for alleged damage to fish habitat.

The reservoir serving Yountville and the neighboring Veterans Home of California has become the latest Napa County water source to be targeted in court for allegedly siphoning excessive water and damaging fish habitats.

A lawsuit filed by Water Audit California demands a curtailing of water diversions to Rector Reservoir, which is owned by the state Department of Veterans Affairs and provides water to both the military retirement home west of Yountville and to the town itself.

In its Nov. 15 filing in Sacramento County Superior Court, Water Audit, a public benefit corporation based in Sacramento, seeks an order to CalVet to stop diversions from the dam at Rector Creek into the reservoir between April 1 and Dec. 14 each year.

Water Audit also seeks an order to CalVet "to cease all delivery of water except as specifically authorized" by its state dam operating license, unless it installs improved flow monitoring equipment and performs new studies, according to court documents.

Reduced flows caused by the Rector dam, which is located east of the Silverado Trail and northeast of Yountville, have eroded downstream habitat for juvenile and adult steelhead and rainbow trout, Water Audit’s Grass Valley-based attorney William McKinnon wrote the court.

The advocacy group also seeks to require the state to install equipment to monitor stream flow, volume and temperature at the creek by New Year’s Day. Water Audit also seeks the state’s publication by May 1 of a map of all the places receiving deliveries from Rector Dam – an accounting it says state officials have never made in full – as well as a study of the amount of water that must bypass the dam to support a fish population below the reservoir.

If CalVet breaches any part of a court order governing water releases, the State Water Resources Control Board should appoint a “water master” to enforce the order, Water Audit wrote in its complaint.

The suit does not seek monetary damages but does request coverage of Water Audit’s legal expenses.

June Iljana, a CalVet spokeswoman, confirmed the agency has received the lawsuit papers but said it will not comment on pending litigation.

Yountville, which receives more than 90 percent of its water from Rector Reservoir, is not named as a defendant in the suit, and Town Manager Steve Rogers said it was too early to know the effects on the town if a court requires more frequent releases into Rector Creek – though he predicted only a slim chance of serious inconveniences to local residents and businesses.

“Rector has about 500 acre-feet of underused capacity, so generally, the Veterans Home’s needs and the town’s needs are met reliably,” he said Tuesday, adding that a full Rector Reservoir can supply the town and the Veterans Home for about three years.

The town typically consumes some 600 acre-feet annually, according to budget documents. One acre-foot, which equals 325,851 gallons, is a common benchmark for the yearly average water consumption by one family.

According to Water Audit’s website, the group’s board of directors includes Grant Reynolds, a La Jolla man who has tangled with Calistoga and St. Helena in earlier suits that also demanded increased water bypasses to protect fish populations. Reynolds’ signature appears in court documents linked to those two cities but not in papers involving the Yountville-area dam, which bear McKinnon’s name.

Water Audit’s suit against St. Helena, filed Aug. 10, demands a ban on water diversion from Bell Creek to the Bell Canyon dam between April 16 and Nov. 14, as well as the use of flow monitoring equipment and a water bypass study like those it seeks in Yountville. As in the Yountville suit, the group is seeking payment for court costs but not damages.

A suit against Calistoga for allegedly releasing too little water at Kimball Dam resulted in the Napa County Superior Court in 2015 awarding $555,767 to McKinnon, representing Reynolds. That ruling stemmed from a 2009 claim originally filed by Calistoga resident Debbie O’Gorman but later bought and pursued by Reynolds, a family friend.

McKinnon originally sought as much as $2.8 million from the city, but Judge Diane Price cut back the final award after describing the lawyer’s billing methods as “vague” and “unreasonable.”

The lawsuit over the Yountville reservoir leaves Napa as the county’s lone city whose local water supply has not yet been the trigger for litigation – so far. “We have done field inspection and document reviews, but there has not been a decision as yet by the (Water Audit) board of directors, McKinnon said Wednesday.

Even so, he added, “We have audited 160 dams so far and it’s become evident the Napa watershed, from top to bottom, has become one of the worst in the state."

Editor's note: This story was updated Saturday, Nov. 26 at 2 p.m.

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Public Safety Reporter

Howard Yune covers public safety for the Napa Valley Register. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.

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