In the small community of Circle Oaks, California, a few miles east of the wine-soaked Napa Valley, residents are fuming over a wealthy Texas couple’s plans to cut down 14,000 adult oak trees and replant the cleared woodland with 209 acres (85 hectares) of irrigated grapevines. The project, opponents warn, will destroy fish and wildlife habitat, reduce the environment’s resilience to climate change, and drain groundwater reserves.
“They’re going to be using about two times the water our community uses,” says Ron Tamarisk, who has lived in the small town of Circle Oaks with his wife, Nancy, since the 1960s. Tamarisk says the community’s wells have never run dry before, but locals are concerned the proposed vineyard will deplete their supply.
“This is going to dewater Milliken Creek,” says Chris Malan, who lives in a rural unincorporated area just east of the city of Napa and very close to the project site. She is referring to a stream that feeds Milliken Reservoir, from which the city of Napa receives water.
The couple behind the project, Craig Hall and Kathryn Walt Hall, are already well established in the local wine industry. Craig Hall, who has led a career in Texas as a real estate developer, told Dallas News in 2014 that he expected to sell as much as $50 million in wines in 2015, mainly through the couple’s Hall and Walt wine labels. Now, he and his wife’s new project, first introduced in 2006, is on the verge of becoming reality. The proposal to expand their Walt Ranch vineyard was approved in December by Napa County’s board of supervisors.
Locals are outraged by the county’s lenience toward the wine industry in general, which many sources claim exerts political influence over county decision making.
“If this project goes through, it establishes a precedent that a rich newcomer can come in and get their way,” says Randy Dunn, a resident of the small town of Angwin, in the hills northeast of Napa. Dunn is also a winemaker. He grows 35 acres of grapes, mostly cabernet, and says he felled a single oak tree to plant his current vines in the mid-1990s.
The Walt Ranch developers initially planned to cut down almost 30,000 trees. They downsized the plan last year in response to general opposition and to questions about the legality of how the new vines would be irrigated. There was talk for a time of pumping in water from another watershed entirely, that of Putah Creek, a Sacramento River tributary.
A secretary for the Halls responded to emails from Water Deeply but did not consent to a request to interview the Walt Ranch project planners.
The supervisors’ December approval of the Halls’ vision prompted three lawsuits from environmental groups and community leaders who say the vineyard’s irrigation demands will harm endangered species like steelhead trout and the red-legged frog. Concerns involve direct withdrawals of groundwater, fertilizer and pesticide pollution, and erosion, which is liable to fill creeks in the Milliken watershed with sediment.
Aruna Prabhala, a staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed one of the lawsuits in January, says groundwater reserves underlying the project area cannot endure a significant uptick in water removal.
“If the project moves forward, the groundwater basin underlying Walt Ranch will be put on a trajectory towards overdraft,” she says.
The region around the proposed vineyard has been classified by the county as “groundwater deficient.” However, the project’s environmental impact report (EIR), submitted in March 2016, claims the basin directly under the property is not at risk. Critics of the project don’t believe it. The EIR estimates that the Walt Ranch acreage draws in between 161 and 207 acre-feet (198,590 and 255,330 cubic meters) of water per year. The county has allowed the project up to 144 acre-feet of groundwater each year. Combined with the 60 acre-feet local households already use, the total rate of extraction could outpace groundwater recharge.
“This means that one especially dry year will put the basin into overdraft,” Prabhala says.
Already, in fact, local water supplies appear to be dwindling. Malan says the output of her well has dipped from 35 to 22 gallons (132 to 83 liters) per minute since 1980, and five other wells within a mile, she says, have gone dry in the past year. Malan is the manager of the organization Living Rivers Council, which filed one of the three suits against the county.
Prabhala points out that the Walt Ranch permit places no limit on groundwater withdrawals for residential purposes – a potentially problematic omission since the 2,300-acre (931-hectare) property has been designated as 35 separate estates, which could be developed.
The Walt Ranch feud is reminiscent of other similar conflicts centered around controversial landowners bent on replacing wild trees with grapevines. At least half dozen other proposals are now under consideration in Napa County alone that, if approved, would convert stands of wild forest into rows of yet more grapevines. In San Luis Obispo County, a winery owned by billionaires Stewart and Lynda Resnick cleared a large swath of oak woodland last year so they could plant a vineyard, prompting outrage from neighbors and scorn in the media. The Resnicks, owners of the Wonderful Company, grow most of the state’s pistachios and have a deep stake in California’s almond and pomegranate industries. Their vineyard project, run by Justin Vineyards, included a plan to build a 6.5 million-gallon (24.6 million-liter) reservoir – what locals challenged as greedy and unnecessary in an area where other winemakers already grow grapes with no irrigation at all, a technique known as dry farming.
In dry farming, farmers may irrigate their crops when the plants are young. However, the idea is to train the plants to set deep roots that can access underground moisture all year, eliminating dependency on irrigation. Dry farming is not possible everywhere, especially in extremely dry regions or on high slopes from which water drains quickly. Dry farming also generally results in smaller yields, though some people claim dry-farmed apples, tomatoes and grapes, since they are less diluted by water, taste better. In the Sonoma and Napa valleys, where groundwater is just several feet down in places, some grape growers dry-farm their vines. Dunn, however, says dry farming in the hilly region around the Walt Ranch property isn’t feasible.
Oak trees themselves use water. However, replacing an oak woodland with a vineyard usually means a net loss for the watershed, Malan says. She explains that trees on a hillside slow down moving water and allow it to percolate into the ground, whereas the barren surface of most vineyards, cleared of low vegetation, sends sheets of water racing downhill into culverts and creeks, burying the gravel beds where trout and salmon lay and fertilize their eggs under fine sediment.
“So [the Walt Ranch project will be] pumping groundwater and impeding recharge,” Malan says.
The Walt Ranch EIR, which was prepared by the Sacramento-based firm Analytical Environmental Services, claims that toppling 14,000 trees will cause “no significant and unavoidable impacts” as long as “all recommended mitigation measures are adopted.” Mitigation measures, outlined in the EIR, include collecting then planting the seeds of several adult walnut trees before cutting them down and permanently protecting 524 acres of land. Nancy Tamarisk, the vice-chair of the Sierra Club’s Redwood Chapter, says this preservation pledge is an empty gesture, since the land that would be saved is too steep and treacherous, she says, ever to be developed anyway.
Tamarisk’s organization joined the Center for Biological Diversity’s lawsuit in large part because the organization feels the proposed vineyard will step back efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. The trees that the Halls hope to cut down are currently soaking up carbon dioxide, and the lawsuit argues that the project does little to offset this impact.
“The only real mitigation for cutting down 14,000 trees would be to replant them all, and probably at a 2-to-1 ration since a lot of the trees won’t live,” Tamarisk says.
Prabhala also believes the scope and scale of the Walt Ranch vineyard is simply too vast for mitigation efforts to offset.
“Fourteen thousand trees is still 14,000 trees,” Prabhala says. “The property is on a hillside. It has streams running through it. It’s not the type of property on which they should be clearcutting and planting vines.”
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