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Napa County sued over care of Napa River

Napa River

People swim at the Napa River Ecological Reserve in Yountville in this file photo. Water Audit California is suing Napa County, claiming that county groundwater practices hurt the Napa River.

Water Audit California is suing to make Napa County increase oversight of groundwater pumping for vineyards, wineries, and other uses, claiming that the pumping affects the Napa River.

The lawsuit said the county has a “public trust” duty to care for the river. The idea is that too much groundwater pumping from wells can keep groundwater from seeping into the river during dry months, to the detriment of fish and other aquatic life.

“Today, the Napa River is important for maintaining native aquatic animals because it is the least urbanized of the sizable watersheds directly feeding San Francisco Bay,” the lawsuit said.

Water Audit California asked Napa County Superior Court to stop the county from issuing or renewing well-drilling permits until the county accounts for cumulative groundwater extraction impacts on the river and establishes practices to protect the river.

In addition, the group wants the court to find Napa County negligent in public trust duties. It wants the county to pay an unspecified amount to remediate injuries caused to the public trust.

“Our hope is they will see the error of their ways and make an offer of settlement,” attorney William McKinnon said Thursday on behalf of Water Audit California.

Napa County spokesperson Leah Greenbaum on Thursday said the county has a policy of not commenting on lawsuits.

The county Board of Supervisors on May 4 heard its annual report on groundwater. Consultants said Napa Valley groundwater supplies have been stable since 1988.

“For many decades, Napa County and its citizens have acted to conserve and preserve groundwater resources and protect beneficial uses and users throughout the county,” the annual groundwater report said.

Actions include setting objective criteria to avoid undesirable results. The county avoids too much groundwater pumping, maintains historic groundwater levels, protects water quality, and protects against land subsidence, the annual report said.

Effects on Napa River due to more or less groundwater pumping did not change from 1988 to 2015, the report said.

But Water Audit California sees problems. Wildlands are converted to agriculture at about 200 acres a year and wine production requires about six gallons of water per gallon of wine, the lawsuit said.

“The Napa River watershed is under constant development pressure,” the lawsuit said.

Out of 10,000 local wells, less than 225 have data reported to the county, it said.

Water Audit California previously sued to secure more water for streams and the Napa River from reservoirs serving St. Helena, Calistoga and Yountville. The group in a 2020 letter to the county said the anticipated benefits appear not to have been realized.

One concern, the letter said, is that Napa River water is being lost to groundwater pumping.

“In short, by the county granting well permits for agricultural purposes, it is extracting water from the Napa River that Water Audit obtained for and dedicated to the public trust,” the letter said.

Water Audit California threatened a lawsuit against the county in January 2020 because the county streamlined permitting for smaller winery expansion requests. Then it held a Napa watershed forum in February 2020 attended by about 150 people.

“We’re here because you folks have a golden opportunity,” McKinnon told the audience. “You have the ability to show everyone else how to take care of the problems, not by litigation and fighting and saying, 'Mine, mine, mine.'”

Water Audit California in April 2020 started The Refugia Project funded by Save Napa Valley Foundation and the Mennen Environmental Foundation to look at Napa Valley environmental issues, the lawsuit said. The suit cited subsequent instances where the group thought the county rebuffed its concerns.

“This litigation has resulted,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit presented a “non-exhaustive” list of 22 county applications it said last year did not receive appropriate public trust review. Projects range from Oak Knoll Hotel to winery expansions such as Rombauer and Chappellet to new wineries such as Scarlett.

Courts have held that, under the public trust doctrine, California has a duty to protect certain resources, such as waterways, for the people.

Environmentalists used the doctrine in a 1983 court case to limit Los Angeles water diversions that were lowering Mono Lake. Yolo County environmentalists used it in a 1990s court case that resulted in more Lake Berryessa water being released to Putah Creek.

McKinnon said Thursday more local Water Audit California public trust lawsuits will follow, though not necessarily against the county.

Napa River has a 426 square mile watershed. The river travels from headwaters near Mount St. Helena through the Napa Valley to San Pablo Bay, a distance of 50 miles, according to Friends of the Napa River. The last 17 miles, from near Trancas Street in the city of Napa to Vallejo, are an estuary system fed by tides.

Chinook salmon and steelhead spawn in the river. Birds dependent on the river include herons, rails, grebes, and mergansers. Mammals include beavers, river otters, muskrats, and minks, the group says on its website.

Here's a look at three stone bridges in and near downtown Napa. All have the stone arches visible.

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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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