There are good reasons for Napa residents’ unprecedented level of opposition to the Walt Ranch project. Five organizations are appealing the project to the Board of Supervisors. These include the statewide Center for Biological Diversity, and local organizations including Napa Sierra Club, Living Rivers Council, Circle Oaks Homes Association and Circle Oaks Water District. While it is impossible to summarize all of the issues in contention, these are some of the major ones.
Water: Circle Oaks is a small rural community of about 500 residents, almost surrounded by the Walt project. Its water district relies on wells adjacent to the Walt property. Circle Oaks is concerned that irrigating the Walt vineyards will deprive Circle Oaks of water, a worry supported by the findings of expert hydrologists. If Circle Oaks wells run dry, residents will not only be unable to supply their needs, but will also be unable to get homeowners’ insurance, because they will lack water for fire protection. Circle Oaks property owners would lose their investments in their homes.
The Walt project does not require any action if Circle Oaks wells run dry. The water district would have to prove that the Walt project caused the water shortage, a requirement virtually impossible to fulfill.
Napa City water is also at risk. For example, Patrick Higgins, a fisheries biologist, asserts that the Milliken reservoir, a Napa City water resource, is in danger of being overwhelmed by algae blooms with any increase in pollution from vineyards. While the City of Napa has reached an agreement with Walt, it requires only monitoring. It does not require Walt to take any remedial action if pollution exceeds predictions.
Regarding sediment, the Walt proponents maintain that vineyard installation will actually decrease sediment runoff. Our experts maintain that this is impossible: their calculations are incorrect.
Opponents also contend that the Walt could decrease flows to Milliken Creek, threatening downstream salmon and steelhead.
Greenhouse gases: Under its current incarnation, the Walt project would clear-cut over 14,000 trees, destroying the ability of those trees to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, and producing “super-pollutants” such as methane when they are disposed of, either by burning or chipping.
The project proposes to “mitigate” this woodland destruction by establishing a conservation easement on other trees on the property. However, this is not mitigation! The protected trees will not magically absorb twice as much carbon dioxide to make up for the lost carbon storage of the destroyed trees. In the real world, greenhouse gases will increase.
Climate change is a crisis, both globally and for Napa. Already we have more wildfires, infrastructure (Highway 37) threatened by rising sea levels, less reliable water supplies, and even speculation about whether Napa can remain a premier grape-growing region. The contention that there will be no impact on greenhouse gases by the removal of 14,000 trees is a farce, and Napa County cannot be a party to it.
Special Status Species: Numerous species of concern are affected by the Walt project. Much of the opposition has focused on red and yellow-legged frogs and pond turtles. These species are the canaries in the coalmine, the first to go down as expansion of human development and climate change disrupt the natural world.
Experts’ testimony has noted that the environmental impact report provides such minimal information on the species studies that they are unable to even determine their adequacy. Two egregious examples include a watershed survey that was supposedly completed in only one day, when an adequate survey would actually require a minimum of one to two weeks to accomplish. Then, there are the surveyors of red-legged frogs, unable to tell the difference between a young frog and a tadpole, or to identify the frog species they encountered.
In addition, the limited buffers around the streams will be inadequate to protect anything approaching the actual habitat of special-status frogs and turtles. These creatures often over-winter hundreds of feet from streams and travel more than a mile to a new habitat or population.
It’s up to the Supervisors.
While we are gratified that this huge project is now not as large as initially planned, the many unresolved issues – of which the above are a sample – continue to make the project unacceptable.
In Napa County, it is tough for officials to say “no” to the wine industry. We hope that the Board of Supervisors will find the backbone to require that in order to go forward, the Walt vineyard project must meet its requirements under California law, including mitigation for greenhouse gases, protection of water supplies of residents, and habitat protections for special status species.
Nancy Tamarisk, chairwoman
Napa Sierra Club
Editor's note: the Register asked the county for a response on the allegations of deficiencies in the environmental impact report. County staff said they would provide a response to these and other issues raised by critics at the hearing before the supervisors on Dec. 6.