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The drying up of the Napa River

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The Napa River became a dry river bed with stagnant pools in early July. Many local and state efforts to get the Water Boards to protect optimum stream flows for fish met deaf ears.

I live and recreate on the Napa River. I organized a Napa River scientific collection project in May 2021 that included water grabs, aquatic insects, and the first ever algae collections throughout this river basin. It took my team a year to establish our sampling sites.

Starting the project on May 13, we didn’t expect the streams to drop so quickly from one day to the next. The day we started we were chasing water in order to collect the samples. We had to scramble to find alternate sites as irrigators were dropping the stream flows quickly. Surface and groundwater pumping simultaneously during one of the worst recorded droughts quickly depleted stream flows and by the end of June the Napa River was a dry river bed with isolated stagnant pool.

We did find adequate stream flows above the big reservoirs like Milliken, Bell and Rector be cause they are steep canyons where diverters can’t pump or extract near the streams. Also, in State Parks like Bothe and Bale Mill the streams had sufficient flows to keep the aquatic ecosystems in good condition, as evidence that surface and groundwater diversions wreak havoc on stream flows. These conditions are occurring State wide as water has been over appropriated long ago by the Water Boards allowing more water to be extracted than what normal rain fall can replenish the streams causing them to steadily drop in flows since 1950. Climate change has caused prolonged drought and water extractions should have been curtailed long ago.

After studying the Napa River ecology for 20 years, it is an ecosystem like no other, with 34 native fish including California Fresh Water Shrimp, river lamprey, Red Legged Frogs, steelhead and Chinook. We discovered new species of aquatic insects and our studies this year discovered new species of diatom algae. All of this richness in biodiversity is in jeopardy due to a lack of regulated groundwater extraction and lawlessness in surface water pumping.

Groundwater-dependent ecosystems such as vernal pools are allowed to be graded with impunity by vineyard developers throughout the watershed, riparian pumpers secretly hide their pumps and dry up the streams, reservoirs are built without permits, stored water is not used for intended purposes and groundwater extractors pump recklessly all this on top of decades of habitat degradation (deforestation) and pollution are all human impacts collapsing our watersheds. These dry brittle watersheds continue to set us up for catastrophic fires.

Additionally, as streams decline in flows, pollution becomes more devastating such as eutrophication or harmful algae blooms where toxins can kill animals and humans.

Recently, the State Water Resources Control Board curtailed the Delta water diversion permits. A few days ago they added more streams and Rivers to this curtailment order including these two streams in Napa County: Cache and Putah Creek that flow into the Delta.

Later this Water Board approved curtailments on the Scott and Shasta Rivers and settled on voluntary compliance to start the curtailments.

The reason for curtailments is to keep the fish in good condition but on the Napa River most of the fish are now dead because the Water Board failed to protect the public trust which is the right to fish, swim, recreate and use potable water. More and more wells are going dry in Napa County. If we had kept water in our streams our groundwater recharge would be healthier.

Napa County Board of Supervisors play a huge role in the dewatering of the Napa River be cause they continue to allow approvals of numerous groundwater wells.

The State Water Resource Control Board should immediately curtail the Napa River to allow for recovery of the aquatic ecosystems. Additionally, the Napa County Supervisors must put a moratorium on all new groundwater well applications until the Napa County Groundwater Sustainability Plan, required by the State Groundwater Management Act, gets submitted to the Department of Water Resources by 2022 for subsequent review and approval.

Chris Malan

Executive Director

Institute for Conservation Advocacy, Research and Education


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