CRITICS WANT STUDY OF SUPPLY IN THE HILLS
PETER JENSEN, Napa Valley Register, 4/9/14
Groundwater beneath the floor of the Napa Valley is in relatively good shape despite the years-long drought in California, but how it’s faring in the hillsides is tougher to decipher.
A committee formed in 2008 to study, monitor and make recommendations about Napa County’s groundwater supplies delivered its final report to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.
Its recommendations emphasize conserving groundwater, particularly through outreach to the Napa Valley wine industry, rather than intensive monitoring or regulation.
The committee focused on the valley floor because it contains the greatest amount of groundwater and the hillsides’ complex geology would take too long to tackle, said Peter McCrea, chairman of the Groundwater Resources Advisory Committee.
Gauging groundwater health in the hillsides would have to be done on a property-by-property basis, McCrea said, and the committee declined to try and address how one property owner’s usage would impact another neighbor’s well.
“It’s all very site-specific,” McCrea said. “That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look at it. But I don’t think you can develop a bunch of rules of thumb that can apply universally.”
The water table in all wells monitored by Napa County have recharged somewhat since last fall, despite the drought, said Patrick Lowe, the county’s natural resources program manager. Most of these wells are on the valley floor, and their historic ability to recharge demonstrates a healthy resource.
“Overall the groundwater level trends appear stable in wells throughout the valley,” Lowe said.
Most are expected to fully recharge in three to four years, although the groundwater in the area draining Milliken, Sarco and Tulocay creeks east of Napa remains deficient and an exception to that trend, McCrea said.
McCrea acknowledged that Napa County is working to improve that situation through a planned recycled water pipeline that would take the largest water users in the area — a golf course and vineyards — off of groundwater, allowing it to recharge more quickly.
But environmental groups at Tuesday’s meeting charged that the county wasn’t doing enough to protect groundwater in the hillsides, and wasn’t scrutinizing new winery and vineyard projects’ water availability as rigorously as it should.
After hearing debate on the issue for almost an hour, the Board of Supervisors decided to take up any changes to how staff analyze water availability at a future meeting so it could study the matter in greater detail.
County planning and public works staff perform water availability analyses on these projects when their developers apply for permits, looking at how much water the project plans to use and whether it meets threshold standards.
On the valley floor, that’s one acre-foot of groundwater, or about 326,000 gallons, per year for each acre. In the hillsides it’s half an acre foot per acre, and in the MST basins it’s 0.2 acre feet per acre.
Staff supported doing additional analysis, although the committee stopped short of backing that notion because it would make the applications more expensive and called it “considerably more complex.”
The current analysis is successful, the committee reported, but the environmental groups say it’s woefully inadequate.
Harris Nussbaum of the Mount Veeder Stewardship Council said the issue keeps arising before the Napa County Planning Commission, which he said has been inundated with applications for new or expanded winery and vineyard projects.
These projects get approved and compound the groundwater issues, Nussbaum said. He contended that a winery and vineyard project in the Mount Veeder area had caused two neighbors’ wells to run dry. The winery, Woolls Ranch, purchased almost 2 million gallons of water from the city of Napa last summer, he said.
One neighbor, Patricia Simpson, has appealed Woolls Ranch’s use permit for its winery, which the Planning Commission approved last fall. Simpson argued in appealing that her well had never run dry before Woolls began using water. Owners Paul and Betty Woolls deny the allegations, contending the wells weren’t drilled deep enough.
“This goes on and on,” Nussbaum said. “It seems like almost daily there’s an approval or a submission. There’s not water under every acre of land. It doesn’t make sense. There’s not adequate research.”
Nussbaum said the county isn’t policing the issue either, allowing developers to tell staff they would use a given amount of water but to actually use much more.
“It is not getting proper monitoring,” Nussbaum said. “Anybody can say anything because it’s not monitored.”
The committee didn’t recommend regulation or policing, which would be expensive and could be met with great pushback from growers and property owners, as groundwater has long been viewed as a vested property right.
Committee member Jim Verhey said the committee’s outreach helped greatly expand the well monitoring the county does, although it could be increased more, particularly in the hillsides. He said the monitoring should be seen as a scorecard reflecting efforts to conserve groundwater.
“We need to focus on outreach and education,” Verhey said. “That is more important than monitoring. Monitoring is just a scorecard.”
Chris Malan of Earth Defense for the Environment Now urged the county to do more to regulate groundwater usage before the state government steps in to force the issue.
Public Works Director Steve Lederer said the state is moving toward requiring counties to at least have a management plan as a basis for regulation, or it would step in and do those plans for them.
While that requirement has yet to happen, Lederer noted that the county has received state grant funding for several water projects, including the Napa River restoration and recycled water pipelines in the MST and to the Carneros region. Future grant funding from the state could be predicated on these plans, Lederer said.
“Where it’s going to come out is difficult to say,” Lederer said. “Where the state comes down — where the minimum standards are or you’re not going to get any money — will become very important for us.”
Malan also saw a dire need to do more in analyzing groundwater in the hillsides.
“We have a huge demand on groundwater countywide,” Malan said. “We cannot ignore the hills. We’ve been advancing into the hills for quite some time. You can’t just look at this project. It’s not just this project in isolation.”
Lowe said that the monitoring efforts started by the committee have expanded somewhat into the hillsides, and the county hopes to build on the effort and find more wells to monitor in those areas. That would enhance its database and understanding of the health of that resource, he said.
“We are starting to monitor in some areas of the hillsides,” Lowe said. “The hillsides weren’t being ignored.”