Bay Nature magazineJanuary-March 2007


The Napa Valley, and a History of Water and Wine

January 1, 2007

In a verdant land, it was perhaps the richest valley of all—30 miles long, two miles wide, with deep, alluvial soils. A river wound sinuously through it, supporting a lush forest of cottonwoods, willows, and sycamores. Salmon and steelhead spawned in the upper riffles in their seasons, and in the lower valley, the river emptied into a vast marsh, teeming with waterfowl, tule elk, and shorebirds.

In the uplands, groves of great oaks yielded their annual crops of mast, fattening black-tailed deer and black bears. The oaks—and the mammals, birds, and fish—also sustained the Wappo Indians who lived here. This was their chosen place, and it was a paradise. They called it Napa, which meant “plenty.”

Today, by any modern valuation, the Napa Valley is still a paradise, at least for wine-lovers and gastronomes: Its vintages, restaurants, and spas are world renowned. And for many urbanites, its vistas seem bucolic, “natural” in the most pleasing sense of the word.

But with the coming of Europeans, the Wappos were slaughtered and scattered—and the wild system that maintained them is long gone. The valley is wall-to-wall grapevines now, with vineyards reaching into the high slopes of the bordering Mayacamas and Vaca Mountains. In this unrelenting monocrop, wildlife mostly consists of gophers, jackrabbits, grape-scavenging starlings, and a few raptors.

The engine that carved this famous valley, the Napa River, would be unrecognizable to the Wappos who once harvested its fish. Instead of a broad, meandering stream, it is a constricted sluice, hemmed in by vineyards. Over the decades, the main channel has incised deep gorges, in some places 20 feet below what its mean level was before European-American settlers came to the valley.

Such steep channel incision has silted up the riffles. Fertilizers and pesticides from the vineyards and sewage from the valley’s towns killed spawners, young fish, and eggs. Dams on the river’s main tributaries also reduced spawning habitat. Salmon were largely gone from the river by 1980. The somewhat hardier steelhead persisted, but their population was at best a remnant, generally restricted to the river’s tributaries.

None of this makes the Napa River’s story unique—it is a tale all too familiar in California. Nor is it unusual that people are working to bring this river back to health. River restoration is big business in California, with projects ranging from backyard creeks to massive efforts on the Sacramento and San Joaquin. What is unusual about the Napa River’s restoration is that it is occurring on some of the most expensive nonurban real estate in the world, and that it is driven primarily by the landowners themselves.

There is no single reason for this recent change in direction. The contributing factors include tighter water-quality and land-use regulations; increasing restrictions on pesticides; and an ambitious flood-control project on the lower river that emphasizes bypass areas and revived wetlands rather than riprapped channels.

And finally, there are the changing perspectives of the people who cultivate grapes and make wine. In the past, the Napa River was many things to the vintners and growers—a source of water, a cloaca for effluent, a dire enemy during winter storms, when floodwaters breached the berms. But only in recent years has the river come to be considered a valuable asset in its own right, something worth saving.

Sometimes this realization was a concomitant of a deep and abiding appreciation for nature—but sometimes it wasn’t. Sometimes it was born out of awareness of the regulatory sticks wielded by local, state, and federal governments.

Both points of view are accommodated by the Rutherford Dust Society, a confederation of 26 mid-valley growers and vintners. Originally formed 21 years ago to promote “Rutherford Bench”—or mid-valley-wines, the group has expanded its scope to community efforts, including restoration of 4.5 miles of the upper Napa River.

Measuring Erosion
Michael Champion, with the Napa Resource ConservationDistrict, holds a 15-foot rod to measure bank erosion. Photo byJonathan Koehler, Napa County Resource Conservation District.

“In terms of compelling reasons, they’re all across the board,” notes Davie Pina, a Napa Valley vineyard manager and cofounder of the society. “Some think it’s the right thing to do. Others realize if they do it now voluntarily, they can do some of their share with grant money. And if they don’t, they may be forced to do it later on their own dime. That can be a strong motivator.”

Restoration of the river represents a major financial commitment for landowners. Mid-valley bench land—the alluvial deposits left by the river between Rutherford and Oakville—probably is the most expensive agricultural land in the country, worth about $200,000 an acre in a raw condition, plus another $50,000 to $70,000 an acre after vines go in. Wine from these vineyards can sell for $100 a bottle, so giving up even a narrow strip of vines along the river represents a major financial sacrifice for a grower.

Participants in the program are giving up an average of one to two acres each to the river, in addition to paying a 50-cent fee per foot of river frontage, says Pina.

John Williams, the owner and winemaker of Frog’s Leap Winery, understands the numbers all too well. Also a founding member of the Rutherford Dust Society, Williams farms 200 acres, with 50 acres in the mid-valley region. He expects to give up between two and three acres of riverside vineyard for restoration.

“For growers, it’s a business decision as much as an environmental one, and you have to weigh all the factors,” Williams says. Three acres of Napa Valley grapevines are both a major investment and a source of considerable cash flow, but levees that have been set back can help control floods—a perennial threat to the valley’s vineyards.

“We were putting a lot of money each year into shoring up those berms and stream banks,” he says. “It’s a significant expense, and there’s never any guarantee that your efforts will hold up in a major flood.”

On a recent tour of the river, Pina pulls his pickup truck into an olive orchard a mile or so east of the hamlet of Rutherford. Accompanied by Jonathan Koehler, a fisheries biologist with the Napa County Resource Conservation District, he scrambles up a steep bank choked with blackberry vines and vinca, a decorative but alien landscape plant that has spread riotously along the river.

Below the two men, the river trickles along the bottom of a steep gorge, first crossing short spans of gravel, then flowing through a series of steep pools.

“That’s the problem, in a nutshell,” Pina says. “A channelized river that incises more and more each year.”

Koehler points at the pools. “That kind of water isn’t much use to salmon,” he says. “There aren’t any riffles that can be used for spawning, and there’s very little edge habitat-shaded eddies and shallow rocky zones—that juveniles can use to protect themselves from predators.”

The basic plan for Pina’s group is to give a meander belt back to the river. It won’t be the river bottom the Wappos would recognize—hundreds of yards of riparian forest sheltering and cooling a broad, shallow stream that often shifted channels across the valley floor. Instead, levees and berms will be set back or terraced 120 feet from the river, sometimes 60 feet on each side, sometimes more on one bank and less on another, depending on the river’s natural course and contours.

That may not sound like a lot, says Pina, but research indicates it is enough to allow the river to shed its straitjacket and behave more like it did in the past. Long, deep pools that are now of little use to salmon will fill in; gravel bars will reemerge.

The process will be helped along by judiciously recontouring the river channel where appropriate, Koehler says. Crews will also add “structure” to the river: logs chained to the banks to provide the kind of microeddies and fractal edges juvenile salmon need to survive.

“The primary goal is reduce the velocity of the water,” says Koehler. “When you accomplish that, you slow or stop bank incision. The river begins meandering again on its own accord, and that creates habitat complexity.”

Also crucial to the project: eliminating vinca and Arundo donax, a noxious cane originally planted years ago by government agencies to stabilize soils. It proved ineffective as a topsoil anchor, but has since invaded miles of Northern California river courses.

“It is absolutely worthless as wildlife habitat, it completely overwhelms native vegetation, and it’s incredibly flammable,” Koehler says, with palpable distaste. “We’ve just begun removing it—it all has to go.”

The county flood control district will charge landowners for exotic plant removal, while planting native trees and shrubs to augment natural reproduction. Elimination of the invasives will also reduce populations of sharpshooters, insects that are vectors for the dreaded Pierce’s Disease virus, which devastates grapevines.

The Rutherford Dust Society largely has completed county permitting and California Environmental Quality Act documentation for the project, Pina says. All that remains is a final construction plan; dirt could begin moving later this year.

Another group working to resuscitate the river is the California Land Stewardship Institute in Oakland, which is involved in a restoration project downstream, on the 10-mile stretch between Oakville Cross Road and Oak Knoll Avenue.

Laurel Marcus, the executive director of the institute, notes the project is part of a larger Wine Country movement dubbed “fish-friendly” farming. So far, says Marcus, about 50,000 acres of vineyards in Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, and Solano counties are applying fish-friendly management techniques. The details vary from site to site, but the basic procedures are the same: Step back streamside levees and berms; create meander belts, no matter how rudimentary; reduce water velocity; remove or reengineer culverts and roadbeds to reduce sedimentation; increase structure in streambeds; establish riparian native vegetation zones.

Dollar figures aren’t final for the total 14.5 miles of restoration, but Pina thinks it will shake out to around $2 million a mile. Between them, the two groups have been approved for about $3.5 million in grants from the state Coastal Conservancy, the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, and Napa County. That’s not enough to pay for the entire project, of course; ultimately, more money will have to be found, and landowners will have to contribute. In land restoration of this scope, says Koehler, landowners usually end up contributing 10 to 20 percent of the costs.

The ambitions for restoration on the 426-square-mile Napa watershed are unparalleled on the North Coast—both in terms of the amount of dirt to be moved and the degree of cooperation between the private and public sectors.

The project is most remarkable because it demonstrates that the conservation ethic has influenced one of California’s most successful commercial emblems: ultra-premium wine. The Napa Valley isn’t just land—it’s an extremely costly brand, one with tremendous innate inertia. It resists alteration simply because it’s so valuable as it is.

“Instituting massive environmental change—for the better, anyway—is extremely difficult in California,” says Marcus. “It’s so crowded here, and land is so incredibly expensive. So here you have people who are willingly taking out some of the most expensive vineyard in the state to help a river and its fisheries. It’s pretty remarkable. It’s not going to be the river it was before agricultural development—but it will be enough, I think, to make a real difference.”

Regulators with the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board seem to approve of the direction things are taking on the river. The lower river, between the city of Napa and the mouth on San Pablo Bay, has seen an expansion in wetlands and riverside woodlands, thanks to a progressive flood control project that has created about 400 acres of marsh and riparian habitat.

Yet the upper river remains a big challenge. “I think you can say that conditions are nominally better up there thanks to regulations,” says Mike Napolitano, an engineering geologist for the board, “but it is still a much simpler system than it [once] was. It’s narrower, straighter, and deeper.”

Salmon, he adds, “need complexity. They need side-channels and sloughs when they come out of the gravel—places they can hide, rest, and feed.”

And will the projects that are now under way be enough? Will they put sufficient complexity back into the river to restore not just some salmonids, but-what? The essence of a living stream? A soul?

Napolitano says he’s uncertain but hopeful. “Right now we’d just be guessing,” he says. “We’ll know more in a couple of years.”

Chinook Salmon Leap
Two people watch as a Chinook salmon leaps upstream belowthe Zinfandel Lane bridge. Restoration efforts in the area willeventually restore nearly 15 miles of salmon and steelhead trouthabitat. Photo (c) Samanda Dorger


And yet, salmon are coming back to the Napa. It’s almost as if they heard someone is building it, and they’ve decided to come. In 2001, Chinook spawners were seen in the river. Their numbers increased with each succeeding year, and this season about 500 adult fish swam up the river, spawning in the scant gravel that remains.

The fish could be opportunistic hatchery salmon from the Sacramento River system prospecting new territory, or they could represent a modest resurgence of a remnant native Napa strain; genetic tests have yet to be completed. Koehler says California Fish and Game records show no significant Chinook run ever existed in the river; it’s unclear if the fish used the river before Euro-American settlement.

“We don’t know if these fish are actually building a population,” says Napolitano, “or whether the river is a salmon sink. It could be pulling salmon from elsewhere to a place where they can’t reproduce very successfully.”

Koehler, however, is a bit more optimistic. “I think we may have a self-sustaining run going here,” he says. And maybe not just with Chinook. Steelhead are still in the river, and the benefits of any restoration project could redound to them handsomely. Perhaps even coho salmon will return. They were seen in the river as late as the 1960s, and spawned in the western tributaries.

And this year, says Koehler, researchers found something strange and exciting in the lower river: juvenile chum salmon. Chums, large fish with distinctive barred sides, are generally found in Alaska and don’t often stray farther south than Oregon.

“It was a stunning discovery,” recalls Koehler. “They’re juveniles—so, are chum reproducing in the Napa system? We simply don’t know at this point.”

Just the fact that such questions can now be asked of the Napa River—for years more sump than living stream—is gratifying.

A mile south of the Rutherford bridge is an anomaly: a short stretch of river that has retained its complexity. You get to it by driving down a dirt road lined with Cabernet Sauvignon vines and jumping over an old stone wall near a bypass ditch.

As you push through the thick, riparian growth, the Napa Valley of champagne wishes and caviar dreams fades away. You can’t see the vineyards; you can’t hear the traffic from the Silverado Trail. Huge valley oaks and ancient willows are scattered across the floodplain. Their canopies shade the river bottom, casting it in a chiaroscuro of shadow and green light. The trees trail festoons of wild grapes and poison oak. The river channel here is sinuous, looping across cobbles and large-diameter gravel.

You feel back in the Old Time now, and it is not hard to imagine a Wappo fishing party emerging from the brush, returning from a weir with salmon. But the connection is tenuous: Koehler points to a robust clump of Arundo. He doesn’t say anything, but he doesn’t need to: A lot of work lies between the river as it is and the river to come.

About the Author

Glen Martin, former environmental reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle,
writes on natural resource issues for various publications. His latest book, Game
Changer: Animal Rights and the Fate of Africa’s Wildlife, was published
by UC Press in March 2012.