Many Napa County residents cherish our scenic hillsides. Many more enjoy drinking our local Napa wines. All should be alarmed by a current trend that is dramatically changing Napa Valley’s character, water security and livability.

The interests of corporate wineries and hospitality businesses – like mega hotels and event centers for weddings and concerts – are taking priority over those of Napa residents. This once-quaint weekend wonder is losing its sense of place, which has appealed to visitors from within and beyond the Bay Area for decades.

Protecting the Napa Valley’s water supply and scenic beauty is critical to sustaining its local economy and way of life. Endless expansion of wineries and hillside deforestation is not sustainable. Nor are the rising health impacts from agricultural chemicals in the Valley. Napa County has one of the highest cancer rates in all of California.

Local decisionmakers could put an end to this unfettered development, but Napa County has a democracy problem. Deep-pocketed wine industry players wield too much influence over elected bodies. Winery event spaces are built first and granted retroactive permits later, even when construction is inconsistent with existing zoning. Bad actors ask for forgiveness rather than permission, which flies in the face of California law.

Fortunately, residents are using the electoral process to create change. Measure C, an initiative on the June ballot, would protect the woodlands that are the main source of Napa Valley’s water supply. The Yes on C campaign is in full swing, fueled by small donations and citizen volunteers. In contrast, the opposition is being fueled mainly by the corporate wine industry, which may spend more than $1 million to spread misinformation and sow confusion about this ballot measure.

The Agricultural Preserve, established 50 years ago, protects agricultural lands from development. The watershed feeding these lands depends on oak woodlands to capture and filter rainwater, replenishing groundwater and streams so that everyone – wineries, residents and tourists – have access to clean, plentiful water. Grapes need a reliable supply of clean water just as surely as people do. Strip the hillsides of trees and you threaten that water supply.

Area residents are also fighting the owners of two proposed vineyards in court that hope to clear-cut woodlands to plant grapes. If built, the vineyards in question would increase flood risk and traffic congestion, and impact local water sources. Both proposed wineries are owned by corporate conglomerates from outside the area.

Wine lovers have a romantic vision of our region as the perfect escape from city life and a source of premium wines. But residents, visitors and distant wine drinkers alike must act if we want to preserve the Napa Valley as a healthy place to live and a beautiful place to visit.

I grew up in the Napa Valley wine business, and I know that many vintners and growers remain committed to sustainability. But their numbers are dwindling in this era of corporate consolidation.

There are actions people can take. Vote Yes on C, become active in local civic activities, and learn about the wineries you visit and the wines you buy. Support small vintners and those working with the community and the environment. The future is the Napa Valley is in our hands. Let’s work together to secure a future that works in balance for all.

Geoff Ellsworth

City Council member

St. Helena

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