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The Napa River was an 'open cesspool' for a century, then NapaSan came along

The Napa River was an 'open cesspool' for a century, then NapaSan came along

Napa River

NapaSan formed 75 years ago to remove raw sewage from the Napa River so water recreation could return. The river today is popular with kayakers, paddle boarders and anglers.

Napa Sanitation District is marking a county-transfiguring anniversary—it formed 75 years ago to turn the Napa River from an “open cesspool” with raw sewage into a water recreation draw.

Signs of success abound. Several kayakers launched into the Napa River on a recent day at the city of Napa’s Main Street dock. They weren’t holding their noses.

Paddleboarding and kayaking would be unappealing — not to mention unhealthy — without NapaSan’s contribution. Businesses such as Drew Dickson’s Napa Valley Paddle wouldn’t be here.

“From what I understand, it’s some of the cleanest water in the Bay Area,” Dickson said. “I would encourage testing to be done, because I think it’s something to be proud of.”

To be sure, the city of Napa’s stretch of the Napa River isn’t as crystal-clear as an alpine lake. It nourishes mucky marshes. Like most major California waterways, it is on the Environmental Protection Agency’s impaired waterways list for certain pollutants.

But the community long ago stopped using the Napa River for a toilet. NapaSan on its diamond anniversary is celebrating its role in polishing a regional gem.

“I think we’ve been better trying to advertise the role we have played,” District General Manager Tim Healy said.

‘An open cesspool’

Napa River runs 55 miles from its headwaters near Mount St. Helena through the middle of the Napa Valley wine country to San Pablo Bay. The section in the city of Napa is tidal, with water levels rising and falling twice daily.

In those not-so-good-old days, the city of Napa, Napa State Hospital, the state Veterans Home of California at Yountville and others dumped raw sewage into the river. Tides didn’t always do a good job of flushing things out.

In August 1898, city of Napa resident W. H. Atkinson blamed the death of a child from illness on poor Napa River quality. He called the sewage situation “deliberate murder.”

“When are the children of this town to be able to get water to drink, not sewage that stinks in the bathtub to such an extent that it nauseates people in the next room?” Atkinson said.

In 1913, the San Francisco Yacht Club rejected Napa as a destination for its annual cruise. Members couldn’t stomach odors caused by garbage and sewage in the river near the Third Street bridge.

State Sanitary Inspector Eduard Ross shortly thereafter recommended the city of Napa build an adequate sewer system.

“Napa, a city of 6,000 people, has an unusual condition to contend with in the dumping of sewage and debris in Napa River,” the June 25, 1914 edition of The Sacramento Union reported.

Such warnings went unheeded. In November 1931, 300 residents petitioned the Napa City Council to do something about a stinking Napa River. The council declined, saying the odor had happened during other dry years.

Napa kept growing and pouring increasing amounts of raw sewage into the river. In 1944, state sanitary engineers declared the river “an open cesspool.”

Finally, in November 1945, residents voted to form NapaSan. According to The Napa Journal, the vote was a 641-5 landslide, though turnout was low.

Napa Mayor S. J. Cinnamond said that “with the cleanup of the river, a major health menace to the city will be eliminated.” Yachting and boating will return, fishing will improve and swimming will be possible, he said.

The cleanup didn’t happen overnight. Even with the first treatment plant built in 1949 along Imola Avenue at the river, work remained.

In 1954, the county Director of Public Health Edward Pickney declared the river a public health menace for anglers and water enthusiasts. Sewage still dumped into waterways at 43 locations. NapaSan pledged to fix the problem.

It did. In August 1957, agency chairperson Joe Greco announced the last of two lines discharging waste to the river had been connected to the main sewer trunk lines. “Health Threat in River Ended,” proclaimed a The Napa Register headline.

NapaSan today treats wastewater at its Soscol treatment plant along the Napa River near the Napa County Airport. Water can be discharged into the river only during the Nov. 1-through-April 30 wet season and must meet state quality standards.

Occasional hiccups

The coming of NapaSan didn’t mean smooth sailing forevermore.

In the late 1990s, NapaSan decided to tackle sporadic odors coming from massive sewage treatment ponds at its Soscol property. It spent more than $44 million upgrading the treatment plant.

The ponds might have smelled like rotten eggs, but did a good job removing heavy metals from sewage. The improved treatment plant eliminated odors, but left more heavy metals in water being discharged to Napa River.

“It’s unacceptable to trade clean water for better smelling air,” said Jonathan Kaplan of San Francisco BayKeeper.

Environmentalists said the metals could cause birth defects and other problems in wildlife. NapaSan officials disagreed harm would be done and said further upgrading the plant to meet suddenly tighter state standards would sock ratepayers with big bills.

NapaSan and the state clashed in court over the issue and eventually settled. District officials said the result was tighter standards for heavy metals within the district’s reach.

Not all of the city of NapaSan’s treated water ends up in the river. Much of it is transported by pipes to be used for irrigation by farms, homes and businesses in such areas as Coombsville and Carneros.

Wastewater has become a water-saver. The district expects this year to distribute 3,000 acre feet. An acre foot is the approximate equivalent of covering a football field with foot-high water.

“We’re on schedule to have our best year ever on recycled water use,” Healy said.

Today’s sewer system still has occasional hiccups. During large storms, some sewer lines are overwhelmed by groundwater that leaks in through cracks. Then sewage bubbles onto streets from maintenance holes and can eventually drains into the river.

Overflows happened during the big storms of February 2017. About 25,000 gallons of diluted wastewater drained into Lake Park in central Napa, prompting neighbors to call it “Lake Poop.”

Old sewer lines were designed to let in groundwater, Healy said. Back in the days when raw sewage went directly to Napa River, the idea was seepage would dilute the waste.

A pollution-fighting strategy from decades past is in the modern world a pollution-causing problem.

NapaSan’s goal is to replace 2% of its sewer pipes each year. The $20 million Browns Valley Trunk Project now underway is designed to help keep the system from being overwhelmed by groundwater during big storms.

Still not pristine

Given NapaSan’s success in ending the raw sewage assault on Napa River, one might conclude the river today must be pristine. That’s not the case, though how clean or dirty it is has occasioned many local debates.

Napa River is on the Environmental Protection Agency list for impaired waterways. So are many major waterways in the state, including Lake Berryessa reservoir, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and San Francisco Bay.

One problem is pathogens, according to state reports. Potential sources include stormwater draining from city streets, septic systems, sewer line failures, wildlife, pet waste, homeless encampments and livestock.

An acid test is whether one can safely swim in the water.

Mike Napolitano of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board said that’s a hard question to answer, given limited local data to determine potential exposure. He noted swimming doesn’t occur in the river in any large, organized way.

He didn’t see a problem with boating and kayaking. Neither does Dickson, who with his Napa Valley Paddle is out on the water regularly.

Dickson said he explains Napa River water quality to his customers who embark on paddle board and kayaking excursions. He talks about the flushing tides and strict water quality regulations placed on farming.

“It’s really, truly something to be proud of,” Dickson said.

The days of Napa River being an “open cesspool” are gone, thanks to NapaSan.

Watch now: NapaSan dredging project

Watch the dredging operation on Napa Sanitation District wastewater treatment plant.

You can reach Barry Eberling at 256-2253 or

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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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