Sunday, August 21, 2016

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in comely Napa Valley?

                    People are calling it voter suppression,
                 never a good idea in California                                                         
     A quick ruling on Napa’s long-suffering initiative proposal to prevent clear-cutting in the hills went before the California Supreme Court last week. Since the county deadline for inclusion on the November ballot loomed, proponents had decided to bypass the usual appeal process and go for a quick ruling.
   The court came back with a summary decision that the case didn’t qualify as an emergency. Opponents of the initiative - the combined wine, tourism, real estate industries - were jubilant. But their celebrations may prove to have been premature. In the first place, the court didn't rule on the merits, just the emergency status. Second, the industry's now on record as being in favor of denying people the right to vote on what many believe is the issue in Napa.
   The law firm representing backers of the initiative believes it will eventually prevail, as do other, independent lawyers. The firm is formally filing for a place on the regular appeals docket. Though the case won’t come up for at least a year, passion - and animosity - is building behind the scenes (see previous Nose posts). Proponents easily gathered twice the number of signatures required - almost seven thousand - and many more people want to vote on tree cutting and water quality.
   Napa’s four reigning power centers - the Napa Valley Vintners, the Farm Bureau, the Napa Valley Grapegrowers, and the Winegrowers of Napa County - fought the initiative, and their collective letter opposing it put them on record as being in favor of denying citizens a say in what happens in the hills.
   Some Napans think voter suppression is a better description. They're now referring to these powerful organizations - once all distinctly different in style and belief - as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
   If the initiative eventually prevails, the Four Horsemen will be saddled not only with some new limits on what they can do in fragile terrain, but also with a reputation as suppressors of the popular will, also known as democracy.
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Thursday, August 11, 2016

Napa initiative blocked on a technicality

        A significant environmental - and social -
              question hangs in the balance                                      


     The Water, Forest and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative in Napa was deflected by the county's lawyer, whose action was upheld by a local judge, the district court in San Francisco, and now by the California Supreme Court, all the decisions based on a perceived technical flaw in the resolution drafted by the organizer's attorneys. This despite an outpouring of signers of the petition and former approval by the county before the wine industry got to county officials, who reversed it. (See July posts for the whole story.) 
     What happens next will say a lot about the survival of sound environment regulation in America's premier "wine country" and the future of its stunning views and way of life.
      Stay tuned.
      This story really goes back to the eighties, when I was doing research for my first book. It continued through the sequel, The Far Side of Eden, and will continue in the final book of the trilogy due out next year and currently in progress.            

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Friday, August 5, 2016

My podcast from American Scholar

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                       Meanwhile, in Southampton:
                               (Photo by Angus Worthing)

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Napa's other beverage is imperiled

                         From: metroactive
ON GUARD: Joy Eldredge, general manager of Napa Water, has expressed concerns that Walt Ranch could pollute Milliken Reservoir drinking water.

Over millennia, the Napa River deposited much of the soil that supports the valley's vast carpet of vines. But for 40 years, the Environmental Protection Agency has classified the waterway as "impaired" by excessive levels of pathogens, sediment and oxygen-depleting nutrients like nitrates and phosphates, which are discharged from wastewater treatment plants and run off of cattle ranches and vineyards. The nutrients have spurred excessive algal growth. The algae choke the river and reduce the level of dissolved oxygen, which is critical for salmon, steelhead trout and other species. While the river is cleaner than it once was, and some riparian habitat has been restored, the feds still consider its steelhead population threatened and its Chinook salmon endangered. As for the native coho salmon? Extinct since the 1960s.
In recent years, the state has limited three Napa Valley cities from discharging treated wastewater into the Napa River during periods of low base flow, a directive that has helped improve water quality to the point where the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board in 2014 recommended lifting its "impaired" classification for nutrients. The board is also preparing its first-ever erosion-control rules for agriculture, with a draft environmental impact report expected this summer.
Chris Malan, Napa County's most ardent environmentalist, has been working to improve the river for decades. In the early 2000s, she donned a snorkel and mask to survey creeks in the Napa River watershed for steelhead. In her run this year for a seat on the Napa County Board of Supervisors she called for a moratorium on new wineries in Napa County. Her platform did not endear her to the wine industry and she failed to make it past the June 7 primary.
Malan welcomes the state's new ag-related erosion-control rules, and she gives credit to winegrowers who have worked with the county and state to implement best-management practices on their property. But she strongly opposes delisting the river for nutrients because many of its tributaries are still often choked with algae—a point she made to the water board by presenting video footage of Tulocay Creek, a major tributary of the Napa River. "You couldn't see the surface of the water," Malan says. "It was covered with a green mat of algae for as far as you could see."
Malan says nutrients from vineyards have gone unregulated and must be brought into compliance. "We have to hit the pause button," she says. "We've got to figure out how to get this right, because it's just not okay to kill all the fish and have people drink polluted water."
Arcata-based fisheries biologist Patrick Higgins, who has worked on steelhead and salmon restoration for 20 years, also opposes the water board's recommendation to delist the river. The ongoing drought, he says, plus illegal water diversions and groundwater pumping result in less water to dilute pollutants in the river. Water temperatures are rising and fish populations are trying to hang on, he says. "Steelhead trout now inhabit less than 20 percent of their former habitats in the Napa River basin because of flow diminishment," he wrote in comments to the water board. Those fish, he said, "will go extinct if more decisive action is not taken."
Shortly before he died from a stroke at the age of 77, Eisele shared a glass of wine with Mike Hackett. "We took care of the ag preserve, and now we need to take care of the ag watershed," Eisele told his friend, referring to the valley hillsides and creeks that drain into the river. "There are more very wealthy people and corporations coming into the valley, and they are not interested in the environment. They are only interested in the expansion of their vineyard properties, and the only place left [for them to go] is in the ag watershed. So watch out. Trees are going to start coming down."
Hackett remembers this talk with his conservation mentor as a call to action, the impetus for crafting a ballot measure called the Water, Forest and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative. The initiative aims to protect the Napa River watershed by tightening restrictions on deforestation, which reduces a hillside's ability to store groundwater. Without trees to impede it, rain sheets downhill, erodes stream banks, and dumps sediment into the river, degrading fish habitat. 
Though supporters gathered more than 6,000 of the 3,900 signatures required to place it on the ballot in November, the county counsel's office rejected the initiative on a technicality June 10, just four days after the registrar of voters qualified it for the ballot. Attorneys with Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger, the law firm that drafted the initiative, plan to file suit on behalf of its proponents. The firm also drafted and defended appeals to Measure J up to the California Supreme Court.
"We believe that county counsel's opinion is dead wrong, and that the county acted illegally," says Robert "Perl" Perlmutter, attorney with Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger. "In our experience, the county's arguments are those that are typically made by special interest industry groups opposing land-use measures and that the courts have rejected."
If the initiative is ultimately adopted, developers of new vineyards would be limited to removing no more than 10 percent of oaks from hillside parcels and prohibited from removing most timber within 150 feet of large streams or wetlands. (The state's proposed erosion-control regulations, now under review, would create best management practices for existing vineyards, while the county's oak woodland initiative would protect hillsides before they're converted or re-planted to vines.)
History reveals not only the need for such protections, but for better enforcement and significant penalties as well. In 1989, heavy rains sent tons of silt from a new vineyard on Howell Mountain into the Bell Canyon reservoir, fouling the main drinking-water source for St. Helena. In response, the county enacted a first-ever erosion control ordinance. But eight years later, the Pahlmeyer winery cleared a hillside without a permit. The incident didn't cause similar erosion and might have gone unnoticed if the property hadn't been visible from the hillside home of environmentalist Malan. With the help of the Sierra Club and attorney Lippe, Malan successfully sued the county, Pahlmeyer and other wineries for failing to properly evaluate the environmental impact of vineyard projects. Now, all vineyard developments are subject to public review under the powerful California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
Still, proponents of the Water, Forest, and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative don't believe that CEQA and county regulations will adequately protect the region's fragile hillsides from projects like the Walt Ranch. Last April, Joy Eldredge, manager of the city of Napa's Water Division, submitted a withering critique of the project to the county planning department. The project's environmental impact report, she wrote, failed to demonstrate that it won't adversely affect the Milliken Reservoir, the city's highest-quality water source. As the recession recedes and crowding on the valley floor sends vineyards uphill, she predicted, the quality of Napa's drinking water would decline as its cost rose.
As evidence of what can go wrong, Eldredge points to the city's other drinking water supply, the Lake Hennessey reservoir. Unchecked fertilizer runoff from upstream vineyards has increased Hennessey's phosphate and sulfate levels, which have spurred algal growth. The nutrients have also quadrupled the utility's cleanup costs, which include treating the water with algaecides and chlorine. Unfortunately, this process can also generate byproducts called trihalomethanes, which have been linked to an increased risk of miscarriage, bladder and rectal cancers.
"Caught between long-term trends of increasingly stringent drinking water quality standards on one hand, and increasing county vineyard development approvals on the other," Eldredge wrote, "the city and its water customers end up bearing the burden of degraded water quality from vineyard development and the need to carry out costly drinking water treatment upgrade projects. The county should prevent the shifting of vineyard development impacts onto the city and its public drinking water customers."
So far, the cost of treating Lake Hennessey water has not been passed on to customers, but if Lake Milliken were to be tainted by vineyard runoff, Eldredge says, rates would rise to cover the cost of new treatment infrastructure.
The Walt Ranch project will, like other hillside vineyards, employ runoff- and erosion-control systems: engineers will dig on-site retention ponds to hold stormwater, then pipe that flow to nearby creeks. But Lippe says those erosion control methods—which conform to a county ordinance—are fundamentally flawed. Yes, the ponds and pipes can control erosion on the vineyard property and those directly below it, but when that water shoots from a pipe under high pressure offsite, it undercuts streambanks, erodes streambeds and stirs up sediment. The county, says Lippe, "simply hasn't adjusted its runoff calculation models to account for how water behaves once you put it into a plastic pipe."
Walt Ranch developers Kathryn and Craig Hall—who moved to the area from Texas, where Craig Hall made his fortune in real estate and was once a part-owner of the Dallas Cowboys—defend the integrity of their project and their commitment to the environment. Their vineyards boast organic certification, and their St. Helena winery was California's first to win LEED Gold certification. According to its environmental impact report, the project's erosion-control system will reduce the current flow of sediment off undeveloped land into Milliken Creek by 43 percent, and level spreaders and rock aprons will disperse and filter stormwater ejected from the ranch's pipe outlets. "We have a good project," says Mike Reynolds, president of Hall Wines. "We are following the directions of the scientists and the county." The Halls also promise to remove less than 10 percent of the property's trees—whether or not the initiative passes—and mitigate that loss by planting trees elsewhere on the ranch and permanently protecting 551 acres of woodlands.
To Stuart Smith, a vocal property rights defender who has owned Smith-Madrone Vineyards & Winery, in the western hills above St. Helena, since 1971, the oak woodland initiative is a solution in search of a problem. If passed, he says, it would force him and other growers to apply for costly permits when they expand or replant their vineyards. Napa Valley winegrowers already face plenty of regulation, he says. Any additional requirements will only serve to drive out small, family-owned wineries like his, leaving only big or corporate-backed wineries—the very operations that "gloom-and-doom environmentalists" rail against. "It's already happening," Smith says. "The billionaires are driving the millionaires out." And if the initiative passes? "My chainsaws are going to be running," he says. "I'm not going to let these yahoos do this to me."
Ted Hall, the president and CEO of St. Helena-based Long Meadow Ranch, a winery and diversified farm with 2,500 acres in production in Napa and Humboldt Counties, calls the proposed initiative an anti-farming ruse cloaked in environmentalism. No science backs up the oak woodland initiative, Hall claims, and it could even result in the removal of more non-oak trees and more hillside home development when vineyard-planting and other ag uses become too costly and difficult.
Like many businesspeople, Hall (no relation to Kathryn and Craig Hall) prefers voluntary stewardship to top-down regulation. In 2002, he and a coalition of the wine industry, the Napa County Farm Bureau, environmental groups, and state and local government initiated a program called Fish Friendly Farming certification, which teaches property owners in the Napa River watershed how to reduce bank erosion and flood damage, improve fish habitat and reduce sedimentation. While critics say the program, now called Napa Green, allows for certification after harmful grading and tree removal have already taken place, it does teach best practices in sediment control, and program leaders claim it has substantially reduced the flow of nutrients and sediment into the watershed. According to Ted Hall, more than 40 percent of Napa Valley vineyards have been certified under the program. 
Residents of the Napa Valley have long invoked Volker Eisele's name with reverence. Because he was a landowner, a winemaker and a member of the Farm Bureau, he moved in many different circles, making allies who helped him shape and promote important conservation legislation. But it's not clear now who has the stature to protect Napa Valley's remaining natural areas from the wine juggernaut. Napa Vision 2050—a coalition of more than a dozen civic and environmental groups that advocates for responsible planning—is pushing hard against the status quo. Many of its members, plus scores of other volunteers, helped collect signatures for the oak woodland initiative. But the valley's wine trade groups have united in opposition to its protections, as has the Farm Bureau. 
Whatever the outcome of the initiative, Napa Valley's success as a winegrowing and tourism powerhouse has been, as the commercial broker quipped to the media, a game-changer. Exactly how residents reckon with these changes will define the valley in the months and years ahead. It is a reckoning the prescient Volker Eisele saw coming. "That this could change rapidly, to this day, human beings have trouble believing," he told an oral historian in 2008.
Harmful development, he said, "can happen more or less overnight if you allow it."
This article was produced with support from The Food & Environment Reporting Network, a nonprofit investigative news organization.
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Saturday, July 30, 2016

Chainsaw wine?

A demonstration outside of the Hall Winery in St. Helena protesting the Walt Ranch vineyard development in the hills of east Napa. The winery is planning to cut and clear 24,000 trees from a sensitive watershed, which critics and water quality experts agree will create serious water quality and availability issues for hundreds living in the county and the city of Napa.
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Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Napa judge's decision appealed to a higher court

The following's from proponents of the Water, Forest and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative opposed by every influential group in Napa Valley except - apparently - the people:
    The need for increased environmental protections for our hillside forests, which directly affect our County’s water supply, is based on scientific reality. If our citizens and ag community want to ensure long-term sustainability of water, we absolutely must control the natural eco-systems in our watersheds. This is why we promoted the Water, Forest and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative.
    It is essential that vineyard plantings are set back from our smaller Class 3 streams in Napa County.The science related to buffer zones along larger creeks and streams mandates much wider setbacks to eliminate sediment, nutrients and pathogens from entering our water sources. At the same time, it is mandatory that we maintain 90% of our oak woodlands to retain water in the soil and to re-charge our aquifers. With such  measures in place, the habitat that live in the forest, can remain. Once our water supply is diminished, it’s too late. We’re smarter than that.
    With these issues in mind, we have chosen to authorize our attorneys to file a writ petition with the District Court of Appeal in San Francisco, seeking an order reversing the lower court and directing the Registrar of Voter to certify the Water, Forest and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative.  The law firm of Shute, Mihaly and Weinberger, who crafted the Initiative, will file the Appeal Writ Petition this week.  This same law firm authored Measure J and successfully defended that initiative through the California Supreme Court.  We believe that we have a strong case here, and the Court of Appeals will recognize that upholding the lower Courts decision would set a very bad precedent for initiative law at the State level. 
    The intent of the Initiative process is to allow our citizens to take direct legislative  action when the local government is failing to protect their rights. The proponents of the Water, Forest and Oak Woodlands Protection Initiative received validation from over 6,300 County residents, and their rights should trump a supposed “minor technical error.”

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Sunday, July 24, 2016

Another way to skin a cat

          Napa initiative disqualified on a technicality 
     But recovery's possible and according to some morally obligatory (see previous three posts). The judge "cited a previous court decision that says “local elections officials may refuse to certify a proposed measure” in such cases." The registrar of voters “'properly refused' to certify the oak woodlands initiative."
     However, "local attorney and farmer Yeoryios Apallas seized on the words 'may refuse.' He believes that the county should, if it has a choice, place the oak measure on the ballot so voters can decide its fate. The right to vote should trump the need for mathematical exactitude, he said."
     Mike Hackett, one of those pushing the initiative, said "there's more than one way to skin a cat," which means there's more to come.
     Read the full story at:

Friday, July 22, 2016

Napa's initiative denied a vote again, lawyers "pissed"

                                      This just in                               

    A judge in Napa's Superior Court denied the appeal of suporters of the Water, Forest and Oak Protection Initiative to get the issue on the local ballot for November. Lawyers for the plaintiffs - those trying to limit clear-cutting and development on fragile hillsides - are reportedly "pissed" and working though the weekend to appeal to a higher court and reinstate the initiative before Aug. 12. (See the two previous posts.)
   Stay tuned.
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The environment finally gets some space in The Wine Spectator

(The piece below is interesting for two reasons. First, it represents something of a watershed in that the glossy wine press rarely questions the motives and actions of Napa's wine industry, and the piece omits a crucial part of the untold story, i.e. that the county first approved the ballet measure, before jerking it back again four days later. Political pressure had obviously been applied , though the county denies this.)

A Battle Over Vines and Trees in Napa Valley?

A local court hears arguments over a ballot proposal that could restrict vineyard planting

Photo by: S. Greg Panosian/iStock
Napa Valley's hillsides are dotted with old oak trees and pines.

MaryAnn Worobiec
Posted: July 20, 2016
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Napa County residents packed a local court on July 15 for a rather arcane hearing on rules for qualifying voter initiatives for election ballots. Extra chairs were brought into the courtroom to accommodate the spectators, with dozens more people standing outside in the hallway, several wearing buttons that read “Save the Watershed.”
They were there to support the Water, Forest and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative of 2016, a proposal to tighten county rules on land development and tree removal near local watersheds. Napa County Superior Court Judge Diane Price had expedited the hearing to see if the measure could appear on the election-day ballot this November. For 10 weeks earlier this year, volunteers supporting the initiative gathered signatures in front of grocery stores and libraries, but county officials ruled that the proposal was not presented properly.
The measure is opposed by local vintner groups. And it comes at a time when many Napa winegrowers worry that their neighbors are growing increasingly hostile toward vineyard plantings. If Judge Price allows it on the ballot, it could bring a simmering debate over vines to a boil.

How should land be protected?

Hillside vineyard development in Napa has grown increasingly controversial. “The valley floor is planted out,” Michael Hackett, a local and co-author of the initiative, told Wine Spectator. “New plantings have to go to the hillsides and mountains, and the only thing in the way are the trees.” 
Local officials, vintners and some environmentalists have long seen farming as the best use for Napa’s land, dating back to the 1968 establishment of the Napa Agricultural Preserve, which protects 40,000 acres of land, preserving it for agriculture or open land. But now some argue that removing oak trees and planting hillside vineyards is threatening precious water sources. California's long drought has given those arguments more weight with the public.
This is not the first time vineyard planting in Napa has met opposition. One of opponents' main objections to the new proposal is that the Valley already has much stricter (and costlier) planting rules than most of California.
In 1991, after erosion on Howell Mountain likely caused by vineyard development polluted a reservoir that is St. Helena's main water supply, Napa County created a strict hillside ordinance, which requires growers to get approval for vineyards planted on slopes of 5 degrees or more. A Sierra Club lawsuit a decade later led to mandates that most Napa vineyard projects must meet the tough standards of the California Environmental Quality Act, which is seldom applied to agricultural developments.
Current rules for developing land in sensitive watershed areas require maintaining a tree canopy of at least 60 percent of what exists and replacing any removed oaks with twice as many oaks elsewhere.
The proposed initiative requires land owners wanting to clear oak trees on most properties of 5 acres or larger to submit plans for county approval. The owners would have to keep at least 90 percent of the oak canopy on a parcel and replace oaks at a 3:1 ratio. Buffer zones around streams would also be increased. 
In April, Napa Valley Vintners, Winegrowers of Napa County, Napa Valley Grapegrowers and the Napa County Farm Bureau all announced their opposition to the proposal in a joint letter. “There is no question that Napa County has already taken a forward-looking approach to environmental protection,” the letter said. The groups argue that the proposed law would complicate a system that already works.
"We are deeply disappointed that this quasi-environmental initiative was proposed to get on the ballot. It's loaded with misinformation and hidden costs," said Jennifer Putnam, executive director and CEO of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers. Putnam added that the organization is highly supportive of other programs, such as the existing Fish Friendly Farming certification program for agricultural properties, which she says is more comprehensive. (Some vintners do support the measure, however.)

A technicality or a valid complaint?

The proposal’s backers needed almost 3,800 signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot. They collected 6,300 by June. But Napa County Registrar of Voters John Tuteur rejected the measure and the signatures. He said the petition didn’t meet California’s “full text” requirement for ballot initiatives because it proposed mandating rules from another measure, Napa’s Voluntary Oak Woodland Management Plan of 2010, without listing the full text of those rules. 
Instead of starting again from scratch—the deadline for making the ballot is Aug. 12—the backers are suing the county. During the hearing, Catherine Engberg, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told the court, “The county got it wrong. The full text rule is a straightforward one.” She argued that it was unrealistic to list every single law or appendix every document that might be affected in an initiative. “The registrar had to, pardon the pun, but had to go out on a limb to reject [the measure],” said Engberg.
Arthur Coon, attorney for the county, defended the decision to reject the measure, suggesting that it “wasn’t an accident” that the plan’s text wasn’t included, pointing out the substantive provisions outlined in the text, including dozens of guidelines for everything from details about installing high-visibility fences and weed-control procedures to acorn collection and storage. 
Judge Price concluded the hearing by saying she plans to hand down a decision within a week. 
The same day the lawyers were arguing in Napa, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors passed an emergency ordinance that would limit the removal of native oaks and woodlands in their county's unincorporated areas. The measure was trigged by last month's controversy over a vineyard-development project by Justin Vineyards and Winery in Paso Robles that removed hundreds of oaks.
As Napa vintners point out, unlike Paso Robles, they already have strict laws in place, and that without the wine industry, their valley would not be the farmland it is today. But whether this proposal is approved or not, questions over Napa's hillsides are not going away soon.
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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Oaks fall while more carbon dioxide rises. Go figure.

                  In Napa the fight's beyond nasty.                                                                                          
(The Napa County Water and Forest Protection Initiative was held up by the county, and proponents appealed to a Superior Court judge who is considering whether or not the initiative will proceed. The following's from a letter sent to me by proponents of a voter initiative to force the county to comply with the law.)
    NAPA, Calif. - Recent widespread news reports concern the controversy over the bulldozing of hundreds of acres of oak trees to plant vineyards. The devastation is taking place fastest in Napa County, and on a far greater scale. Says Mike Hackett, spokesman for the Initiative, “We are right now confronting project after project calling for deforestation in our watersheds, and residents are alarmed, but our County officials have yet to act.”
    Consequently he and other Napa County citizens have drawn up and collected over 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 besieged 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,” Hackett said.
    “This should concern residents of the greater San Francisco 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.”
    According to Hackett, Napa County Planning Department records show nearly 3 million gallons of additional wine will be needed to satisfy the myriad of winery expansions on file with the County. That would require an estimated 6,000 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, “says 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.” 
    "California has lost more than a million acres of oak-related lands in recent decades. These oak woodlands 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,” Wilson added,  "This is significant because two thirds of Napa County’s drinking water  comes from its oak-dotted watersheds."  
    Joy Eldredge, Napa City Water 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% 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% of Napa city’s water supply comes from Hennessey Reservoir.
    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, one of the world’s most prestigious viticulture regions, is noted for its ideal terroir and climate for grape growing.  “Over 40 years ago,” Hackett said,” visionary Napa County activists such as Volker Eisele [see] pushed through farsighted policies to protect the valley floor for what was considered it's 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.
    The Napa County Water, Forest and Oak Woodlands Protection Initiative recently garnered over 6,300 petition signatures to qualify for the November ballot. It is currently held up by the County over an alleged “minor technical issue", Hackett explained.  
    A lawsuit was filed by Initiative proponents and a favorable ruling is hoped for next week. In the case of an unfavorable ruling the matter will be appealed to a higher court.
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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

And you thought vineyards were benign

            Napa's Environmental Struggle Intensifies
                                       (from the Napa Register)                                              

                                         By  Stephen J. Donoviel                            
Reading the article County Approves Walt Ranch (June 14) immediately brought to mind two comments: one, the response by one of the so-called "Original Ten" vineyard and winery owners during the late 1960s to a question about planting vineyards on the surrounding mountains, to which he replied: "The valley's for farming, the hills are for the deer." The second was a comment I often heard my mother say, "My, oh my, what money can buy!"
David Morrison, director of Planning, Building and Environment, stated in the article that all of the numerous concerns addressed in the EIR analyses for the above project could be mitigated and would not reach the level of "Significant." I disagree.
These concerns involve the entire ecosystem, including soil erosion, draw-down of tens of millions of gallons of water and damage to the water supply affecting local residences as well as necessitating costly improvements to the city of Napa water system; traffic issues, including road damage and increased pressure on recreational and residential mobility; threats to wildlife; geological threats to the adjacent community of Circles Oaks and many other families living in the surrounding area; various forms of noise pollution generated by heavy equipment, increased numbers of vehicles of all types, demolition explosions, etc.; and the potential risks to the health of these citizens (as well as the construction workers needed for the project) by possible exposure to carcinogenic dust being blasted into the atmosphere.
These degradations would result from the domino effects stemming from the extensive alterations to the landscape, and to conclude that all these can be satisfactorily mitigated does not, in my opinion, meet the smell or common sense test -- notwithstanding the numerous analyses and consultants that have been employed.
Central to many of the issues is the cutting of old-growth forest and there is no possible mitigation for time lost, i.e., the many decades to regrow the estimated 24,000 trees and vegetation to be destroyed and the resultant effects on the ecosystem. If we think of the trees as healers of the environment, e.g., removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, stabilizing soil and stream beds, providing cover for fauna, etc., the work provided by 24,000 trees cannot be compensated by the remaining forest regardless of their numbers or ratios.
Planting saplings, while a good idea, will take years and years to equal the healing capacity of what was destroyed. I think it paradoxical that approximately two weeks after indicating that the removal of 24,000 trees did not have a significant environmental impact, Mr. Morrison in a Napa Register article on July 4, concerning Napa's responsibilities to deal with the counties' carbon load, noted that one aspect of the plan could include planting 2,500 trees annually.

Anyone who has driven behind earth/rock-moving trucks (which have relatively tight covers over the load) knows that considerable dust escapes. Four years of construction noise may not seem "significant" when gauged from sound measurement techniques, however the effect undoubtedly would be deemed otherwise by local residents. Unlike the project developers and their staff and those public officials making determinations about the risks of this project, the citizens living nearby will face an estimated four years of daily direct exposure to the noise and air pollution from explosions needed to destroy mountains, cutting trees, constant rumbling of heavy construction equipment, workers vehicles, etc,.
I am puzzled why the owners who, when they opened the Hall Winery in St. Helena, touted it as a "green" enterprise, are now promoting a project that is the antithesis to that concept with the destruction of every conceivable aspect of the environment and all for no apparent good reason -- certainly not to put food on their table, clothes on their backs or grow grapes in an environmentally sound fashion. Looking at the plot maps, this looks more like a plan for multiple ranchettes than a farming operation.
I urge the supervisors to reject the totality of this project and, instead, encourage the owners to deed this bit of earth to future generations, which, as others have pointed out, would prove to be a much greater legacy, a la Warren Buffett, the Zuckerbergs, the Gates, and so on.
If this and other such projects that have negative impacts on the many to financially benefit a few get approved, it seems there are very few options left for us, one of which would be to seek redress through the courts. Obviously such an action would require the resources and clout that an organization such as the Sierra Club has. However they would need our support and I urge everyone who is not currently a member to join the Sierra Club since this project would have lasting negative consequences, in varying degrees, on all of us.
To order Napa:

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Waiting for Fire, 4

                Turning Out the Light on the National Guard
    Randy pulls open the doors to the cave. The dim space is punctuated by winking lamps tunneling toward the heart of Howell Mountain, the corridor lined by French oak barrels like opposing sentinels forming a blond, symmetrical honor guard. He makes his way toward the farthest barrel, collecting a hose here, a hose there. Draped with heavy rubber coils, he ascends to the buildings above and attaches nozzles that can be directed toward embers or creeping ground fire during that short interval when a fire is possibly controllable.
    More water will be needed for an inferno, however—more than is readily imaginable. Thirty feet from where that mountain lion once jumped through the window stands a faded red International fire engine built in 1946 by Van Pelt of Oakdale, California. It’s an elegant conglomeration of red domed lights, old cloth hoses folded and stacked like 100-foot pythons, rubber hoses on hand-rolled wheels, spiderweb-covered railings, and various other accoutrements out of a Buster Keaton film. Most important, though, the antique fire engine has an 800-gallon water tank, which Randy now fills, using a big plastic pipe from the well’s concrete collecting tank.
    Randy bought the engine as is from Mike Robbins, the owner of Spring Mountain Vineyard—also known as Falcon Crest on the 1980s television show—when Robbins, despite the success of the soap opera, was in bankruptcy. The fire engine’s transmission was jammed, and Robbins agreed to take just $1,500 for this classic, even on the off chance that Randy could get it running. So Randy borrowed a crowbar, fixed the transmission in a few minutes, and hauled the fire engine up Howell Mountain on the trailer. He parked it in the field south of the house, where it has sat ever since.
When Randy presses the ignition switch, a blast of black smoke erupts before the motor turns over with authority, filling the afternoon with the resonance of old-time, unmuffled vehicles.
    We pull the flat cloth hose onto the grass, up the stairs, and across the office porch, where Antonio Galloni will have to step over it the next morning—if there is still a winery here and cabernet to taste. The hose expands as the engine pumps water through it. For one frightening moment, the nozzle—sculpted brass, a work of art in its own right—blasts a barely manageable torrent as thick as a man’s arm before the motor is shut off.
    Fortunately, the smaller rubber hoses emit streams of water less likely to break windows. Their pump runs off the main engine, and Randy gets it running, too. The rubber coils throb as they come off the roller. Pull the trigger on a fancy nozzle, and a shaft of water shoots half the height of a Doug fir. The fire engine’s water tank is full, the hoses are ready, and Randy shuts everything off.
    It’s late afternoon, and there’s no sound now from the one house visible to the north, no sign of human life in the encircling view. The breeze is undetectable in the trees, but high overhead, curdled clouds move glacially out of the south. Randy walks around the paddock and down to the pond, where a child’s plastic paddleboat sits among the weeds.
    He pushes the two-person boat into the water, then climbs in alone and tests the paddles. The boat lists to one side, so the paddles make it go round in a circle. Randy climbs out and wades in deeper. Here we could stand and possibly survive, although it would be a very long night. We would watch the firs crown out in paroxysms of flame, the Dunns’ house following. We would listen to bottles exploding in the cellar, hot embers raining all around as we felt the pressure of lung-collapsing heat. If we had fire suits and gas masks, though, we could contemplate the smoke through a thin sheet of scuffed plastic. But Randy says ruefully: “I’ve only got one gas mask.”

    At dusk we go into the kitchen, where Randy makes margaritas with a single-field tequila called Ocho, for which he trades Dunn Howell Mountain cabernet. This sort of bartering—cab for a case of tequila, cab for a flat of apricots, cab for a reworked airplane part—is as old as agriculture. Meanwhile, I cook hamburgers doused in Worcestershire sauce, and then we devour them, Randy drinking a bottle of Sierra Nevada pale ale and I a glass of a previous year’s Dunn petite syrah from one of the open bottles next to the sink.
    All outside lights are off now, and darkness settles in like a sentence. The thought of dying from smoke inhalation at two in the morning recurs, but Randy has been through this before; he’s no fool. And if I stay, I can have another glass of petite syrah.
    A friend calls from St. Helena: rumor has it the National Guard is coming to evacuate any stragglers. Randy hangs up. “If we see anybody in the road,” he says, “we’ll just turn off the kitchen light.”
    After dinner, he turns off the light anyway and goes back outside, where he puts on his headlamp. Exhausted, I head for the guest bedroom, where there’s a shower and double glass doors to stop any mountain lion. It occurs to me as I pick my way through the darkness that, in this age of calamity, falling embers are a metaphor for a host of real possibilities. We’re all waiting for fire now.
    The last time I see Randy that night, he’s back up at the well house. If the National Guard comes, they will see a bobbing circle of yellow light and hear the sound of someone wielding a McLeod, working.