Recent widespread news reports concerning controversy over a San Luis Obispo County wine company bulldozing hundreds of acres of oak trees to plant vineyards have left many Napa County residents scratching their heads: The same devastation is taking place in Napa, much faster and on a far greater scale.
This deforestation project by Justin Wines in Central California is heartbreaking, and should help bring awareness to the current onslaught in Napa County.
We are right now confronting project after project calling for deforestation in our watersheds, and residents are alarmed — our county officials have yet to act.
Consequently, a coalition of Napa County citizens has drawn up and collected more than 6,300 signatures on a voter initiative for the Nov. 8 ballot — the Napa County Water, Forest and Oak Woodlands Protection Initiative of 2016.
Its primary aim is to safeguard the county’s watersheds, water sources and forests. We need this ballot measure to restore balance between the wine tourism industry and the rights of local residents and communities, and to provide long-term protections for our oak woodlands and our water future.
This should concern residents of the Bay Area as well. The Napa River is the second-largest freshwater source emptying into the bay—a water body shared by millions. The Napa River has been impaired for decades and we need protections for the water sources that drain into it.
Napa County Planning Department records show nearly 3 million gallons of additional wine will be needed to satisfy the myriad winery expansions on file with the county. That would require an estimated 5,000 additional acres of new vineyards, sacrificing much of the county’s water supply and natural beauty—its forested hillsides and watersheds—to meet the demand.
Right now, we have at least 29 erosion control/vineyard conversion applications on file awaiting approval, according to Jim Wilson, vice-president of Defenders of East Napa Watersheds. “We don’t have any current protections for our oak woodlands, so we need the Initiative for a healthy eco-system,” he said.
“California has lost more than a million acres of oak-related lands in recent decades. These oak woodlands,” he said, “are responsible for water purification and replenishment and are essential to the environment and watershed health. Napa has the highest concentration of oak woodlands of any county in California, and this iconic ecosystem is disappearing at an alarming rate. This is significant because two thirds of Napa County’s drinking water comes from its oak-dotted watersheds.“
Joy Eldredge, Napa City Water Department general manager, has written: “The county should prevent the shifting of vineyard development impacts onto the city and its public drinking water customers.” The water manager goes on to state that “the City has seen a 400 percent increase in the level of effort required to treat Hennessey Reservoir for algae problems.”
This water quality degradation is due to vineyard development and run-off above the reservoir’s watershed. At times, 70 percent of Napa city’s water supply comes from Lake Hennessey.
Large vineyard developments above water reservoirs could require taxpayer money to clean up these reservoirs, if such developments take place.
Napa’s other reservoir faces a large vineyard development above it called Walt Ranch, associated with Hall Winery, which would cut and clear 24,000 trees, and the City of Napa water manager believes it could cost the taxpayers up to $20 million to clean up the reservoir’s water if this project is approved.
“The juggernaut of the wine industry’s encroachment into hillside forests threatens to bring serious impacts for humans, animals and the environment and after five years of drought, it’s only going to get worse,” says Wilson.
Napa Valley, is noted for its ideal terroir and climate for grape growing. More than 40 years ago, visionary Napa County activists such as Volker Eisele pushed through farsighted policies to protect the valley floor for what was considered its highest and best use—agriculture, including wine grape production.
Now, however, the accelerating demand from international corporations and wealthy individuals to convert thousands more forested acres to vineyards is pushing development onto sensitive hillsides and natural areas, threatening Napa County’s microclimates and future water security.
Although the Napa County Water, Forest and Oak Woodlands Protection Initiative recently garnered more than 6,300 petition signatures to qualify for the November ballot, it is currently held up by the county over an alleged minor technical issue.
A lawsuit filed by initiative proponents will be heard in Napa County Superior Court on July 15 and a favorable ruling would allow the measure to go forward on schedule. In the case of an unfavorable ruling, the matter will be appealed to a higher court.
The Superior Court hearing is set for Friday, July 15 at 9 a.m. at 1111 Third St. in Napa.
Hackett is a founder of the Napa County Water, Forest and Oak Woodland Protection Committee.