River Restoration Milestone

Napa Valley growers and vintners move to protect vines and wildlife

by Jim Gordon
River Restoration Milestone
View Upstream from Rutherford Bridge.
Rutherford, Calif. -- Grapegrowers who own property along the Napa River in Rutherford are celebrating a milestone in their five-year effort to restore two miles of the flood-prone stream. Members of the Rutherford Dust Society, an imaginatively named association of vintners and growers in the Rutherford AVA, gathered with local politicians, consultants and engineers to endorse a comprehensive engineering design that should protect their vineyards and provide improved habitat for fish and other wildlife.

For the past five years, a team headed by Davie Piña, John Williams and Andy Beckstoffer of the Rutherford Dust Society has worked with a wide range of stakeholders to develop a long-range sustainability program for the river. The process is now about 85% complete, Piña said. A few more government approvals are needed before construction drawings can be completed and put out to bid. The idea is to reshape the river's channel and plant native species along the banks to make it more stable and more conducive to wildlife.

The restoration work may amount to $6 to $8 million, which will be paid for by Napa County funds together with matching funds from state and federal agencies. Once the initial work is done, however, the responsibility for maintaining the river will fall to the property owners. Piña said landowners will have a chance to vote on assessing themselves perhaps $3 to $5 per linear foot of river frontage per year.

As an owner of Piña Vineyard Management, he farms three vineyards that touch the river, and knows only too well how expensive it is to repair the frequent bank wash-outs that take bites out of vineyards. "Sometimes these spot repairs are costing my clients as much as $100,000 at a time. But with the restoration done, and an assessment in place, growers will be able to put the cost into their business plans and expect that this will cover maybe 90% of their repairs. You can't just let the river keep washing out your vines," he said.

Besides preventing erosion, the restoration will also reduce Pierce's disease pressure, since the disease's insect vector favors some of the current non-native plant species that populate the banks. These will be removed and replaced with a combination of native grasses, shrubs and trees, including oaks and poplars.

A third reason for the voluntary effort to restore the river is to head off potentially draconian intervention by government entities if nothing is done.

River Restoration Milestone
Touring the riverfront at St. Súpery .
Said Andy Beckstoffer, whose company is a large owner of Rutherford AVA vines, "Our mission was to work collaboratively with neighbors and agencies to stabilize river banks, reduce the impacts of flooding, protect and enhance fish and wildlife habitat, reduce Pierce's disease pressure on vineyards, and provide ongoing education about the river and its watershed. The goal is a living river."

Relatively new to the project is Lisa Micheli, Ph.D, who is taking over as the Rutherford Napa River Restoration Team facilitator. "This is a pioneering effort, to my knowledge the most ambitious river restoration project to date proposed on private property in California," Micheli said. "The Rutherford Reach restoration will result in a wholesale upgrade of four-and-a-half miles of the Napa River from the perspective of both protecting private property and enhancing the river's ecological value."

Landowners who have signed off on the project include Cakebread Cellars, Carpy-Connolly, Frog's Leap, Glos Family, Gmelch Vineyard, Guggenhime Family, Honig Vineyard & Winery, Nickel and Nickel, Opus One, Peju, Quintessa, St. Súpery, Sawyer Cellars, Sequoia Grove, Star Vineyards and The Ranch. Public funding critical to advancing this initiative has been provided by the California Department of Fish and Game, the Coastal Conservancy and the State Water Board.

River Restoration Milestone
Salmon still swim the Napa River.
Paul Wagner, executive director of the Rutherford Dust Society, said it has been an enormously involved undertaking, but the result is a plan that will do more than restore the Napa River--it will provide the infrastructure and legal foundation to maintain that status for the future. The final plan also serves as a handbook for the rest of Napa County, he said. By using the systems, plans and organizational structure that the Rutherford Dust Society has developed for this program, these same goals of restoration and sustainability can be achieved for the entire Napa River watershed.

"Millions of dollars will be needed for just two miles in Rutherford," Wagner said. "But we have created a prototype that will not only serve the other regions of the Napa River, but can also serve as a river restoration plan for just about any river in the country." The AVAs just downstream--Oakville, Yountville and Oak Knoll--already have begun to organize their own efforts, following Rutherford's lead.

Davie Piña is one of several native Napans who own or farm the riverside properties in Rutherford. His grandparents owned a place along the river, and as a boy he used to swim in it, fish for steelhead trout and hunt for crayfish. "The fish will probably be the biggest beneficiaries," he said. "There will be less sediment, which comes from the banks themselves, and more canopy cover to keep the water cooler, which is good for the fish. The river will be widened a bit to allow it to do a little more meandering. This allows gravel bars and ripples to form, which is exactly what the fish need to spawn."
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