2011-12-10 "Napa River restoration project serves as model" by Peter Fimrite from "San Francisco Chronicle"
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's top man in the region shook his head after tromping through a restored Napa River floodplain and then motoring on a boat through one of the nation's premier riparian revitalization projects.
"Why," asked Jared Blumenfeld, the EPA's regional administrator, "do we not hear more about this?"
The grapevine is getting louder, with community planners and environmentalists taking note, as Napa County moves forward with a project that, when completed, will have restored 15 miles of the Napa River and added 135 acres of floodplains.
It is already California's largest floodplain and wildlife habitat restoration project.
The EPA contributed $1.5 million Friday to the project, which would never have gotten off the ground without the cooperation of 43 landowners who agreed to take vineyard property out of production so that the river could be widened to create floodplains and riverside habitat. The State Water Resources Control Board and Napa County have also contributed several million dollars to the massive project, which is expected to cost as much as $17 million when it is completed over the next decade.
Flood protection -
For the vineyard owners, the work will protect their lands from erosion and floods.
"We hope it is a model for government, private owners and the public to work together," said Davie Piña, a vineyard owner and president of the Rutherford Dust Society, an association of nearly 100 growers and wineries. "We hope we can repeat this on every river, in every state and every community in the world, but we're starting here."
The plan is to remove levees and berms and carve flat areas and side channels so the river can meander during high flows like it once did. The shallow floodplains will also reduce silt in the river caused by regular slides on the once steep banks.
Workers have restored 2 1/2 miles of the 4 1/2-mile Rutherford Reach, a viticultural area of Napa Valley. The work included the removal of barriers to chinook salmon and steelhead trout migration and the carving of channels for them at the Zinfandel Lane Bridge in St. Helena. Fisheries biologists said the work at the bridge, which was completed last summer, opens up 60 miles of spawning habitat to the fish.
Project planners expect to finish work on the Rutherford Reach in three or four years, then begin work on a 9 1/2-mile section of the river between Oakville and Oak Knoll, creating resting pools and spawning habitat for fish. The floodplains lessen the danger of catastrophic floods and flush out insects and invertebrates, providing the resting fish with food.
"Studies show that fish with access to floodplains grow bigger and are more likely to reproduce," said Andy Collison, a geomorphologist for ESA PWA, the project designers.
River runs deep -
The Napa River, which runs 55 miles from Mount St. Helena to San Pablo Bay, once meandered across a wide swath of the valley floor and supported as many as 8,000 migrating steelhead and chinook salmon. Levees and berms were built and the river was confined to channels with steep banks as agriculture moved into the area. The Napa is now as much as three times deeper in sections than it once was and erosion is a major problem.
The fish suffered in the channeled river. Silt from erosion and runoff covered the gravel were the fish lay their eggs. By the 1990s, the steelhead run in the Napa River had dipped into the hundreds and flooding regularly inundated the city of Napa, nearby homes and farms.
The Napa County Resource Conservation District began addressing the flooding and fish problems in the 1990s. Levees were removed along 3 1/2 miles of the river, and wetlands and flood zones were created on 970 acres in and around the city of Napa during the past decade. The vineyard owners and the county came together around the same time and began working on plans for the upper reaches of the river. That work, which is now being done, is funded by federal and state grants.
Model for success
Leslie Ferguson, a fish biologist and the grant manager for the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board, said she hopes what is being done in Napa can be duplicated in other Bay Area rivers and streams.
"Every creek has different issues, but this is a model of how landowners can participate with local governments that are willing to remove regulatory barriers and come up with funding for a larger restoration project," Ferguson said. "The scale of this project is unprecedented."
Blumenfeld gazed at the restored wetlands and watched from the boat as ducks and shorebirds swam and poked around what is essentially a new river ecosystem.
"Everyone should know about this," he said.
Jared Blumenfeld, EPA regional administrator, tours a section of the Napa River that is part of the restoration project. Photograph Credit: Paul Chinn / The Chronicle