Ordinances Fail to Adequately Protect Environment

In the next weeks, we will address some of the issues that are confronting many of us and concern our relationship to the earth: land use issues, property rights, stewardship, and pesticide use. The following is a letter to the editor that appeared in the Napa Valley Register on Friday, February 18, 2011. 

Letter to the Editor of the Napa Valley Register
and an Open Letter to the Napa County Board of Supervisors

My husband and I have attended the Board of Supervisors’ hearings for the Dry Creek vineyard permit of Mr. Dunphy, and have become concerned as the issues of erosion, water usage and health of the watershed have become ever more polarized. We are concerned that the ensuing power struggle will result in expensive and divisive lawsuits rather than an honest evaluation of the facts.

We also have a ranch on Dry Creek Road within a quarter-mile of Mr. Dunphy’s. We are advocates of agriculture and ecology, members of both the Farm Bureau and Sierra Club. We have done erosion control projects in our vineyard, which is close to the valley floor, that have worked.

However, the hillsides of our ranch are another story. Our ranch is a long, narrow tag of land cresting the ridge. When we built our home we improved an old wagon trail for our driveway. All work was done with permits and reviewed by the county, also true to our knowledge of all work done either side of us by our neighbors. We are continually dealing with erosion control, working to stabilize and not have sedimentation get into the feeder creeks of Dry Creek or Redwood Creek. With every heavy rain, we are dealing with silt.

Heavy, persistent rains result in large amounts of silt being washed onto our property from our neighbor’s driveway to the south, a driveway also engineered and done with permits. The earth literally liquefies. We have built barriers to keep silt from the feed creek, and our concerned neighbor-added rock, but every year for the last 12-15 years, we have ongoing problems with sediment.

Higher up the hillside, we have another problem with deepening ravines. A hydrologist helping study the situation pointed out that the forest and grassland on our neighbor’s property above the ravine are crucial to holding the soil in place as much as it is.

North of our driveway is a large cavernous ravine in which large oaks are now falling. Since the oaks depend on summer dryness for the health of their root system, one wonders if they have been impacted by the irrigation of a (legal) vineyard uphill from them. It begs the question, should we be irrigating in these hills at all?

As more people populate formerly unpopulated areas, particularly fragile hillsides, we are witnessing damage. Our county ordinances are inadequate to meet these challenges. The damage is also from driveways and home construction. We know there is strong feeling about property rights, and as landowners, we understand. But being property owners means we are stewards of the land and part of stewardship is realizing our part in the whole. A diversity of plants, animals and timberland are critical to ecological and agricultural health, as are healthy watersheds and waterways. In the Napa Valley, the river is both an indicator of and critical to ecological health. Use of our ground water for irrigation, irrigating on hillsides, removing timberland, large oaks and grasslands, all impact our beloved valley and the river.

Our request is that the board meet the environmental challenges of the 21st century by using systems already in place, namely a renewed emphasis on environmental impact reports, especially in situations in which there is a dispute between experts. We are not familiar with the soils and situation on Mr. Dunphy’s property, but we are with ours, and with the land abutting our own. We can say for a fact that disturbing soil, even with permits and current protective systems of our county laws, still has resulted in serious, ongoing erosion and significant sedimentation.

The inadequacy of the erosion control ordinances makes it difficult for both planning staff and landowners.

We believe that agriculture can learn to co-exist in nondestructive ways with timberlands, oak savannas and waterways.

Would we not be better served by an honest appraisal of erosion control measures that have worked, and ones that have not? Some places may need to remain timberlands, grasslands or oak savannas.

Emphasis may need to be on dry farming, particularly after a vineyard is established. It is important to not leave these decisions up to property owners who may not understand the larger implications of their actions, many having little experience with these soils and/or farming. Should Dunfy’s situation move to a lawsuit, it is a failure of Napa Valley ordinances.

We urge the Board of Supervisors to use the law to ensure special interest groups: property right advocates and conservationists, vintners and beleaguered county planners, do not eclipse a real study of the facts — facts recorded in the scars on our hillsides, in our deepening ravines, and in the signature silt filling our waterways.

Patricia Damery and Donald Harms represent Harms Vineyards and Lavender Fields and live in Napa.