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Napa County approves groundwater plan - but there's more to come

Napa County Administration Building

The Napa County Administration Building.

Napa County supervisors approved a Napa Valley groundwater plan amid a deceptively quiet and quick session, given the stakes for vineyards, wineries, the environment, and other water users.

That's because supervisors acted Tuesday after closing the public hearing on Dec. 7 and receiving written comments until Dec. 14. The county faces a Jan. 31 deadline to submit the 5,000-page plan to the state and has been told loading it onto the state website could take two weeks.

But critics — many from the environmental community — and supporters have already spent months commenting. They’ll have still more chances as county officials enact what they called “a living, dynamic document.”

“This is not the end of the process; it’s the end of the beginning,” said Saintsbury winery co-founder David Graves, chairperson of a 25-person advisory committee that worked on the plan.

County supervisors took action as the Groundwater Sustainability Agency.

California is requiring communities all over the state to prepare plans for certain groundwater basins. The goal is to avoid such “undesirable results” such as plummeting well levels and sinking land.

Napa Valley sub-basin runs beneath the valley floor from Napa to Calistoga. It provides water for vineyards and wineries that fuel the local economy and for rural homes, as well as for the Napa River and streams.

Although the public was quiet during Tuesday’s meeting, various individuals and groups opined on the draft plan in recent months. The county released a 68-page report compiling verbal and written comments and addressing the various issues raised.

Some criticized the plan as being too narrow in outlook by focusing on the valley floor. They argued the entire Napa River watershed should be included, given the link between the watershed and groundwater availability.

Two-thirds of the water used for crop irrigation on the valley floor comes from the hillsides, the Center for Biological Diversity wrote on Dec. 6. Yet this watershed, with its forests and wildland open spaces that help recharge the aquifer, is not included in the scope of the plan.

“This disconnect allows the county to continue to approve projects that deforest critical recharge areas for vineyards and wineries,” the letter said.

The county responded that the Napa County Groundwater Sustainability Agency is authorized to develop and implement a plan for the state-defined Napa Valley sub-basin only. Still, hydrological models include the influence of the larger watershed.

Gary Stern of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries in a Dec. 7 letter expressed concern that the plan might not adequately protect steelhead trout. Groundwater feeds the Napa River and creeks during dry times.

The county responded by citing sections of the plan that it believes addresses the stream-groundwater connection.

This is a timely issue, given that stretches of the Napa River and some creeks went bone-dry in 2021. The challenge is figuring out how much of this, if any, stemmed from groundwater pumping as opposed to the drought, diversions to reservoirs, and other factors.

Paul Brophy, an independent groundwater professional, supported the county plan. While not perfect, it is thorough, comprehensive, and well-reasoned, given time constraints and the inherent uncertainties in interpreting groundwater conditions, he wrote on Dec. 12.

“Comment acknowledged,” the county responded.

Growers/Vintners for Responsible Agriculture in a Dec. 6 letter said the plan uses multi-year averages when looking at groundwater conditions. That minimizes the worrisome conditions seen in the Napa River and its tributaries.

“It only takes one year of disastrous conditions to lose a large population of aquatic life and species,” the group wrote.

The county responded by citing dozens of tables and figures in the plan detailing annual seasonal and surface water conditions, including streamflow data going back to 1929. It cited various sections of the plan.

Michelle Benvenuto of Winegrowers of Napa County at the Dec. 7 Groundwater Sustainability Agency meeting urged supervisor to adopt the plan. While not perfect, it is a step forward, she said.

She also addressed those who might think the wine industry would put economic gain over the health of the sub-basin.

“The idea that the agricultural users wants to exacerbate our groundwater is incredibly ill-conceived,” Benvenuto said. “We are completely dependent and heavily invested in assuring this incredibly valuable resource is sustainably managed.”

The state Department of Water Resources has up to two years to review the county’s groundwater plan. In the meantime, the county intends to start implementing the plan, including doing such things as closing data gaps and refining groundwater estimates.

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.

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