Napa Valley Updates

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Water Board Discusses Farmer Limits

By David Gelles, September 18, 2006 09:47 AM
OAKLAND - Environmentalists and representatives of the farm industry testified Wednesday at the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board meeting on a proposal to limit sediment levels in the Napa River.
"It's not fish against farmers," said Sandy Ellis, executive director of the Napa County Farm Bureau. "The water is needed by both fish and farmers."
About 60 people attended the three-hour monthly meeting, held in the auditorium of the Elihu M. Harris Building in downtown Oakland. There will be another hearing on the Napa proposal at the water board's next meeting on Oct. 11.
The proposed amendment to the Water Quality Control Plan would establish limits for sediment discharges in the Napa River, and also implement measures to improve the habitat for steelhead and salmon.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that the river once supported runs of up to 8,000 steelhead and 4,000 salmon. At present, numbers for both fish are estimated in the hundreds.
Human causes such as farming and the deepening of channels have raised sediment levels to about 180 percent of their natural rates, according to a report by the board. This sediment has decimated steelhead and salmon populations, said Mike Napolitano, a scientist on the water board who has worked with the Napa River for 16 years.
"The Napa River once supported large numbers of these fish," he said.
By limiting sediment discharges, the proposal would bring sediment levels to 125 percent of their natural rate. To achieve this, the water board would use its regulatory authority to limit discharges by vintners, ranchers, and rural property owners.
At present, runoff from these properties introduces huge amounts of silt into the river. These discharges not only affect the sediment level, but before they settle, the floating particles can be toxic to marine life, according to Chris Malan of the Living Rivers Council, a Napa environmental group.
"The Napa River is dying," Malan said. Floating particles are a major part of the problem, she said, urging the board to impose limits on them.
In addition to excessive sediment, Napolitano said other threats to fish habitat included erosion along the riverbanks, low water flow and high temperature, migration barriers such as dams, and a lack of diverse habitat for the fish.
But farmer representative Ellis said that before capping sediment discharges, the board should consider agriculture and municipal needs as well. Napa farmers are eager to work towards a healthy river, but hope to avoid excessively strict regulations, she said.
Also at Wednesday's meeting, the Santa Clara Water District received the first award for Watershed Stewardship Excellence. The award recognized the district's clean up of pollution from mercury mines along the Guadalupe River Watershed.
"Santa Clara is one of the finest watersheds in the country," said board chairman John Muller.
The San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board is one of nine regional boards in the state. An agency within the California Environmental Protection Agency, the state and regional boards are charged with protecting the quality of surface and ground water.