Friday, September 30, 2016

Is Fish Friendly LandSmart enough?

This letter's in response to an earlier one (see Sept. 26 post) by an environmental activist deploring the effects of widespread tree-cutting in the hills. The questions that remain are: if so much is being done, why isn't the Napa River in better shape, and how much political cover is being provided indirectly by claims like this for business as usual in the hills?                                                   

From the Napa Register:

As we near the end of another harvest season, I ask myself, what’s different today than nearly 15 years ago in the way that vineyard properties are managed? Today, unpaved roads are being maintained to protect water quality, stream sides are being restored to provide shade and habitat, fish barriers are being removed, and water use is being more carefully monitored on site.
Nearly 15 years ago, a small handful of growers throughout Napa County were involved in this type of stewardship. Today, over 45 percent of vineyards and over 72,000 acres of land are being managed in a way to protect water quality, enhance stream habitat, and efficiently use local water supplies.
The Napa Green Certified Land program, developed in 2002 by a diverse group of over 20 stakeholders representing environmental and agricultural interests, helped propel stewardship to the next level.
Napa Green is a program where growers receive technical assistance from the Fish Friendly Farming and LandSmart programs to evaluate their property and then develop and implement a conservation plan that includes a site-specific set of beneficial management practices to protect and enhance the natural resources on their property. The plan is certified by independent third-party local, state and federal agencies with qualifications and responsibilities to protect water quality and endangered species.
Guided by professionals--experts in hydrology, fisheries biology, fluvial geomorphology, riparian restoration, erosion and sediment control, agronomy--Napa Green participants are hands-on environmental leaders working through the LandSmart and Fish Friendly Farming programs. They are implementing watershed-wide erosion reduction projects on unpaved roads in tributaries that are critical to threatened steelhead trout.
They have worked with the Napa County Resource Conservation District to remove fish migration barriers in the Napa River watershed, providing improved access to high quality habitat in local tributaries. They implement practices to evaluate and improve their water use efficiency for irrigation and frost protection. They are leaders in several reach-scale restoration projects on the Napa River and in the Bear Creek, Bale Slough, and Carneros Creek watersheds. They are working together, parcel by parcel, to manage their land in a way that is mindful of their stewardship responsibilities.

Current Time0:00
Duration Time0:00
Loaded: 0%
Progress: 0%
Over 15 years ago, diverse stakeholders came together to discuss common goals related to improving the health of the Napa River. We talked about difficult issues, we didn’t always agree, we worked to find common ground, we agreed to a program, Napa Green, that would help growers and vintners meet shared environmental goals. The process wasn’t driven by regulations or the ballot box – the process was driven by a shared interest in protecting a special place, a place we call home, a place we work, a place we love: the Napa Valley.
There are pressing environmental issues, no doubt. Today, we’d be well-served to think about how we can best work together, like we did 15 years ago, to find common ground and address our shared challenges to meet our shared interests. Anything else will serve only to fragment our community and dissipate constructive conservation efforts.
Leigh Sharp, executive director
Napa County Resource Conservation District

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Growing old illegally?

Here begins a series of occasional correspondence with a Napa County resident uncommonly knowledgeable both politically and historically. Her work reaches all the way into the halls of justice in Washington, D.C. , and though I can't vouch for all of it, I do find her work valuable and interesting, and she herself a fine example of engaged citizenship.

                                          The Private I

    This recent industrial accident in the Ag Preserve south of Yountville, investigated by the Sheriff's Department, reveals - as does the wine's label - that a generic California wine is being aged in the Ag Preserve.  The wines contain no local fruit and - generic wines can only be produced in the industrial area south of Napa.
    Little by little more and more "label operations" with faux fronts are destroying our ag preserve, using our precious water, adding commercial traffic and more tourists to our roads, while operating as illegitimates.  It's consumer deception, even though bottles are properly labeled California Wine vs. Napa Valley.  
    While the Sheriff can investigate the death, only costly civil actions can restore our blessed valley.  Think of this as a label operation for Sutter Home Winery capitalizing on a local name, after they were chased out of th Ag Preserve years ago.
A reader responds:
    Afraid your source is way off. Of course, "generic" wines are legally produced as well as aged all over the AP. They just must be correctly labeled (and there's the rub). There is no legal requirement for ANY pre-WDO winery to use ANY county fruit - it can all be "generic" and that is millions of gallons.
    And if they were using Napa fruit pre-WDO they have no requirement to continue to do so nor any requirement to reveal their sources. So, if they were producing a million gallons Napa wine pre-WDO, they can shift that volume to all non-Napa fruit (or bulk wine), nothing prevents that.
    In fact, they can apply for an expansion, claim that they were crushing Napa fruit pre-WDO (no proof needed), "shift" the numbers of that "Napa fruit" to meet the 75% requirement of their post-WDO expansion and never reveal their sources. This is the "source shifting" that so concerned Andy with Raymond's expansion. Big fight over this a few years ago with NVV - they won, of course.
    Only wineries approved or expanded post-WDO are required to use 75% Napa fruit - they can process up to 25% of their production in non-Napa fruit and that can also be millions of gallons of "generic" wine.
    Airport Industrial and within certain city limits (Napa): there is no requirement for any winery to use any Napa fruit but those are not the only locations legally producing and/or "aging" "generic" wines. So there is no "there" there…
    The "there" is in the fact that altho NVV polices the use of "Napa Valley" on NEW label applications - no one monitors what is IN the bottle. There are no requirements for wineries to reveal the source of their grapes in any Federal TTB reporting - and TTB is supposed to control the use of appellations (working on this but on hold for harvest).
    No one monitors the 75% sourcing in NC either - unless
selected for audit - and now NVV has convinced county to do "mandatory" reporting that can't be verified to anything because no one tracks it - all very clever.
    Shhh at this time - but there is a really big story here that no o
ne is looking at - it's not what's ON the label, but what's IN the bottle (EVEN if legal by current regs).
   The source is right that the Joel Gott operation is suspect - but may be totally within regs which allow and promote consumer deception.


Monday, September 26, 2016

The outer life of trees

                    This letter pretty much sums it up:                                                     

From the Napa Valley Register:      

  Program Is Covering Up for Deforestation

Have you ever heard of the story behind the story. The full story of the Napa Valley Vintner's programs that helps preserve fish habitat needs better context to the history, causes and environmental degradation of the Napa River. It can be mostly summarized in one word -- deforestation.
Since prime agricultural lands on the valley floor were converted to vines (large swaths of forest removed for vines) by the 1950s, the expansion of vines has been in the forested mountains surrounding the Napa Valley and through streams that flow to the Napa River that have been sadly dewatered and denuded for vines.
American Canyon, Suscol, Carneros, Milliken, Kimbal and Bell creeks are tributaries out of over 56 that still have dry season flows to the Napa River. You cannot have fish without water. Shame on us for not protecting flows to the Napa River, which now runs mostly dry throughout the fresh water portions of the river. Groundwater continues to decline and deforestation for yet more vines continues at an alarming pace, destroying what is left of Northern Spotted Owl, mountain lion, red-legged frog, Chinook and steelhead habitats, i.e. Walt Ranch soon to deforest 24,000 trees in the best creek and public reservoir watershed, Milliken Creek.
The wine industry is tapping into multi-million dollar grant opportunities (our tax dollars) to restore private rich property owners' riparian lands (Rutherford Dust) because the Napa River storm water is exceeding levees (to protect vines) carving a new channels through valley vines.
Why is this happening? It is happening largely due to deforestation on slopes. Healthy rivers flood their plains but levees disconnect the rivers from flood plains.
In the Napa Valley, levees were primarily created to protect vines from flooding. For the last 30 years, slope deforestation and vineyard erosion control plans pipe water off the mountain vineyards and discharge the storm water into the creeks causing increased rated of flows into the Napa River exceeding the levees. Hence, high velocity storm waters (jumped levees) are destroying rich valley land owner's vines.

No worries for the rich because the taxpayers are paying for their new levees while all the agencies are ignoring the cause of the levee breaches such as levees themselves, deforestation and increased rate of runoff from mountain vineyard developments. What a colossal failure of the public trust to restore the Napa River.
The PR for this “restoration” provides environmental cover for an industry that ignore the true causes of our environmental problems here in Napa County. Check out the most recent levee work at Yountville crossroads. Let's understand that the rich property owners are not donating their lands, but rather they are desperately fighting to try and regain control of floodwaters that are destroying their vines. Now, the new levees have to be set back onto their lands.
Why are taxpayers having to pay for the impacts of an industry that is silent on their deforestation practices, which is the major cause of valley floor levee breaches? Then they have the audacity to call their industry Green Certified. Our glamorous wine industry is green washing a nasty underbelly of deforestation for feel-good restoration.
Chris Malan

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Nature in glass


My daughter, Susanna , a glass artist living in Berkeley (, wants to donate a portion of the proceeds from her diverse genres ( to a good environmental cause in northern California. There are so many good ones. Please send suggestions.


Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Like ten million matchsticks

   California Oaks Stand Ready to Burn
      (from The New York Times)
                                 By Cynthia H. Craft


INVERNESS, Calif. — At the height of California’s fierce wildfire season, the Sierra Nevada and North Coast forests are choked with tens of millions of dead and dying trees, from gnarly oaks to elegant pines that are turning leafy chapels into tinderboxes of highly combustible debris.
Ground crews wielding chain saws, axes and wood chippers are braving the intense summer heat in the Sierra’s lower elevations, where most of the pine trees have died. The devastation and danger are greatest in the central and southern Sierra Nevada, where the estimated number of dead trees since 2010 is a staggering 66 million.
Scientists say rarely is one culprit to blame for the escalation in the state’s tree deaths, and the resulting fire hazard. Rather, destruction on such a broad scale is nearly always the result of a complex convergence of threats to forest ecosystems.
Chief among them is a severe, sustained drought in the Sierra Nevada that is stressing trees and disabling their natural defenses. Climate change is raising temperatures, making for warmer winters. No longer kept in check by winter’s freeze, bark beetle populations are growing. Separately, a nonnative, potent plant pathogen is thriving in the moist areas of the North Coast, introduced to California soil by global trade. Opportunistic fungi are standing by, ready to finish the kill.
Factor in human shortcomings — poor or absent forest management, a failure to clear out ignitable dead wood, the darker temptation of arson, unchecked carelessness — and you have a lethal recipe.
“It’s never just one thing that brings down trees,” said David Rizzo, the chairman of plant pathology at the University of California, Davis. “It’s always a combination. The first may weaken trees; the next stresses trees over time. Then comes a third, shutting down the trees’ immune and defense systems. Finally, the last may come along to disrupt nutrient systems. When all this happens at once, or in rapid succession, trees are no longer able to save themselves.”
Two of California’s prized forest regions are in failing health because such conditions have stacked the odds against them. In the Sierra Nevada, the losses of pines and other conifers are concentrated and widening.
Along the North Coast, a picturesque blink of a town called Inverness and the surrounding Marin County woodlands are “ground zero,” Dr. Rizzo said, for the mysterious plant pathogen that began infesting coast oaks probably as far back as the mid-1980s.
It took years of research — detective work, really — before experts like Dr. Rizzo and Matteo Garbelotto, a professor of environmental science policy and management at the University of California, Berkeley, discerned that the funguslike pathogen had infested coast oaks years before their showy demise.
Dr. Rizzo estimated that five million to 10 million coastal trees had died because of sudden oak death.
A related pathogen, Phytophthora infestans, was responsible for the Great Potato Famine in Ireland in the mid-1800s.
In Marin County, home to some of California’s priciest land, sudden oak death spread onto such landmark properties as George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch and the renowned Spirit Rock Meditation Center. The pathogen has taken hold as far south as Big Sur, a rugged, misty stretch of Highway 1 with a bohemian flavor to its exclusive community.
On a recent, sun-dappled afternoon in Inverness, Dr. Rizzo looked to the sky and noted, “Big Sur is burning.” The same gray, coarse woody debris that Dr. Rizzo had just pointed out to visitors had accumulated in the woods not far from Big Sur.
Sudden oak death thrives in the moist, cool climate of the North Coast. Dr. Rizzo is investigating whether it moves through streams as well.
Near the Oregon border, the Native American Yurok and Hoopa Valleytribes are participating in Dr. Rizzo’s research, periodically checking bags of leaves retrieved from streams for signs of disease. “Culturally, the tanoak are very important to Native Americans,” he said.
Katie Harrell, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit California Oak Mortality Task Force, said Native Americans mourned the death of trees in their habitat. “Trees are part of their holy lands,” Ms. Harrell said. “They break down in tears talking about the loss of trees as family members.”

CreditGabrielle Lurie for The New York Times 
No one knows exactly where Phytophthora ramorum first showed up in California, but Dr. Rizzo said the pathogen was probably a stowaway aboard a shipment of imported nursery plants.
What is known is that alarm over dying oaks has instilled in coastal residents a new esprit de corps. Armed with GPS devices, envelopes and markers, crews of citizen scientists respond to Dr. Garbelotto’s call for seasonal “blitzes.” Volunteers scour wooded areas for signs of the disease. Upon coming across a tree with blighted leaves, they note the coordinates, collect samples and send them to a laboratory for identification.
The pathogen spreads by rain splash. The forest’s Typhoid Mary is the bay laurel tree, a faithful host for the disease but one that never succumbs to its perils.
When rain falls on bay laurel leaves, contaminated droplets scatter, reaching neighboring trees. If those neighbors are coast oaks or tanoaks, the pathogen penetrates bark with ease and establishes residence. At the end of outstretched filaments too small for the naked eye to see, the pest launches lethal spores that sap the tree of its nutrients. Native fungi follow, as do pests. Within a couple of years, the tree is dead.
Millions of coastal oaks have died that way. Interest in sudden oak death has taken on a life of its own, with the Sixth Sudden Oak Death Symposium this year drawing scientists from around the world. Dr. Rizzo and others are growing more concerned that, as tanoaks spread in Northern California’s iconic redwood forests, sudden oak death will follow. Because tanoaks quickly fall to the disease, the danger of fire fed by dead wood will rise and the redwood ecosystem may be damaged.
Already, researchers have detected the killer pathogen among redwoods in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, along the Avenue of the Giants, a 31-mile route through the world’s largest stand of virgin redwoods.


Dr. Rizzo’s lab is monitoring 600 forest plots of 500 square meters each. According to his website, researchers will periodically visit the plots, and “every tree and shrub will be assessed for presence of pathogen(s).”
Dr. Garbelotto is experimenting to see if a preventive treatment he is applying to vulnerable trees will ward off sudden oak death.
On the other side of California, the tree die-off in the Sierra Nevada continues to worry firefighters and public officials. Under stress in the fifth year of severe drought, the ponderosa pines, the pinyons and the sugar pines lack the moisture needed to manufacture the sticky resin that prevents bark beetles from burrowing into their trunks. With nothing to stop the voracious pests — no bigger than a grain of rice — they bore into the pines, where they produce larvae. In turn, the larvae feed off the trees’ nutrients, and the tall, proud pines die in place, standing upright like matchsticks waiting for a light.
The official count of dead trees, taken by United States Forest Serviceand California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection officials during flights over the Sierra Nevada, is almost certain to grow. More are being spotted from the air in the Lake Tahoe Basin and farther north.
Neither of the two enormous die-offs seems to be ending anytime soon, and the Big Sur blaze is still burning — with more than 90,000 acres destroyed.
When hit with fire like this, many forests return only as scrubland, with trees no bigger than shrubs.
Gov. Jerry Brown of California issued emergency declarations for the Sierra’s central and southern regions last October. Mr. Brown also called for a task force to devise strategies to clear the forests of deadwood. He also sought additional federal funds.
In that pursuit, he received an assist from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who as overseer of the Forest Service predicted disaster if Congress failed to allocate much more money for preventive forest management.
“Tree die-offs of this magnitude are unprecedented and increase the risk of catastrophic wildfires that put property and lives at risk,” Mr. Vilsack said earlier this summer. “We must fund wildfire suppression like other natural disasters in the country.”

To order my novel, Nose, click on:  

Friday, August 26, 2016

An up-dated publisher's bio

     James Conaway is working on the last volume of his Napa trilogy, a social narrative written with novelistic conventions. An early chapter was recently published in The American Scholar ( and the magazine also produced a podcast that can heard at
    A former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and a recipient of the Alicia Patterson Journalism Fellowship, Jim was the former editor-in-chief of Preservation magazine and is the author of three novels - The Big Easy (Houghton), World’s End, (Morrow) and Nose (St Martin’s), about the California wine world from which he has reported for many years.
    He’s the author of ten books of non-fiction, including The Far Side of Eden: Old Land, New Money and the Battle for Napa Valley, a Washington Post Best Book of the Year in 2002 described in the New York Times Book Review as "an important story, emblematic of our time." Of the best-selling book that preceded it, Napa: The Story of an American Eden, Frank Prial wrote in the New York Times: "fascinating... Conaway is a reporter with a Saroyan-like sense of humor and a Balzac-like eye for detail.”
His other books include The Forgotten Fifties: America’s Decade from the Archives of Look Magazine (Library of Congress/Rizzoli 2014); the essay collection, Vanishing America: In Search of Our Elusive Landscapes (Counterpoint); a memoir, Memphis Afternoons, (Houghton Mifflin) reviewed in the Washington Post by Jim Lehrer who wrote, "Conaway moves through his family and life in Memphis in the '40s and '50s with the flow and grace of an impressionist painter”; and The Kingdom in the Country, a personal journey through the public lands of the American West described by Wallace Stegner as "a very lively book... He got into places and activities that most westerners never even get close to." The late Jim Harrison called it "a wonderful and well-considered evocation of the New West."
Jim has written for many magazines during a long and varied writing career, including the New York Times Magazine, the Atlantic Monthly, the New Republic, Harper's, Smithsonian, National Geographic Traveler, and Outside. His op-ed pieces have appeared in the New York Times and the Washington Post.

To order my novel, Nose, click on:  

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.
To order Napa:

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.            

To order Napa:

Friday, August 5, 2016

My podcast from American Scholar

Go to:
                       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.
To order my book about the loss of American place go to: