A quote from Los Angeles Times journalist and author Mark Arax says it all: “All that pumping requires deep pockets. The small farmer who can’t afford to keep chasing groundwater falls by the wayside. …Water isn’t the equalizer that the state and federal projects promised. Water is the means by which the valley has become one of the most unequal places on earth.” (The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California)
Arax was speaking of the Central Valley, but this is increasingly true of Napa County as well. Trucking water obscures some of the facts on and in the ground. It also too often reflects economic inequality, which I will explain below.
Trucked-in water is the result of lack of water at a particular site, either from lack of surface water or from wells underperforming or going dry. Around our ranch, we see that water is being trucked regularly to several neighbors. In fact, in recent years, as more wells have been drilled for new residences or vineyards and wineries, our well, once performing at about 40 gallons per minute, is at risk of going dry. This week we have been out of water once, an event that never happened in the last 38 years we have lived here. Often impacted wells like ours are older and not metered as they were drilled years ago before we even thought of water wars.
Why is the County of Napa continuing to permit more vineyard and winery development in areas that are known to locals to be water-deficient? Time and again neighbors tell their water story woes in public comment periods in front of the Planning Commission for permitting more vineyards and wineries. Too often their reports of poor wells and inferior water quality appear dismissed as anecdotal. Yet, people who have lived on the land for a long time know it best, and this includes its water table.
Nevertheless, it’s time to meter and to monitor all wells in Napa County, and to use this data from the surrounding area before embarking on any more permits. Currently, Napa County does not require vineyards, wineries, or any businesses it permits, to operate within the resources (water, sewage, etc) of the parcel upon which they are located. It does not require transparency of water usage via public reporting. A serious goal of the Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA) should include this study and require planners and planning commissioners to use these surrounding conditions before permitting development of any kind.
Transparency of trucked water usage is an essential piece of any resource evaluation: trucked water by surrounding properties may well be an indicator of problems with the depletion of an area’s resources and an enabler of water overuse.
When trucked water is not taken into consideration, a skewed perspective on water availability is perpetuated. Trucked water from the City of Napa is a source of revenue for the city. Each year about 40-acre feet (13,034,040 gallons) of water, is sold, but where the water goes is unknown to everyone but the trucking companies (start at 1:37-1:40). In the event of severe drought and the possibility that either the City of Napa or the State of California through the North Bay Aqueduct does not deliver the water the municipalities in Napa County depend upon, the trucked water to these rural residences/businesses will dry up.
Consider the following points:
• Trucking of water creates a false sense of abundance and adequacy. Assessing and documenting the quantity of trucked water is critical knowledge. Trucking of water is covering up the emergency that is already at hand. To the county, it looks like all is well because the city is supplying the water that is trucked. When the city has an emergency, the greater problem will be exposed.
• This is a social justice issue. Many of the people whose wells run dry and are forced into hauling water are often long-time, older residents. They have been impacted by the excessive drilling of new wells near them and they cannot afford to drill another deeper well. Continued development in the hillsides means more wells drilled and more water extracted, leading to two things: The neighbors adjacent to the developments are too often left high and dry, and the flow to the basin, where all those corporate straws are stuck, will also be depleted. We are already experiencing loss of water and hardship in the hillsides, as the county allows more and more vineyard, winery, and large home developments.
• Groundwater is a public resource and is not under the ownership of the parcel owner. It is a finite resource that must be shared, maintaining the viability of all parcels and permits using the same public resource. The county and the GSA must prioritize the care of the water tables in the upstream of the water basin. The state of the hillside aquifers is a leading indicator of the health of the basin. If water sources upstream are sucked dry, that water basin is in trouble.
A county-wide agency or department (such as what Local Area Formation Committee-LAFCO- has suggested) could and should meter and monitor wells as well as insist on more transparency on the trucking of water. We also need our Board of Supervisors (who have appointed themselves as the members of the GSA) to direct the Planning Commission to consider the overall cumulative impacts of more drilling and water usage on the larger area surrounding an applicant’s project before permitting and intensifying use of water. Otherwise, we will end up in a position in which rural and municipal faucets are fighting with agricultural drip-lines. We are approaching that point now.
(40 acre-feet per year is a statistic from Napa City)