Mike Hackett is a former Navy pilot, an airline pilot for 30 years, and is married for 51 years with two grown kids and two grandkids. He moved to Napa Valley in 1977 because “it was the most beautiful place I’d seen on earth.” He retired in 2003. He was Chairman of Save Rural Angwin where they floated a Measure but won land use designation changes to preclude Angwin development. He was co-author of Measure C, a member of Napa Vision 2050 Steering Committee, and founder and President of GVFRA and its nonprofit arm, Save Napa Valley Foundation which received a grant for stream obstruction removal and for the installation of three areas with water quality monitors through The Refugia Project.
In 2017, under the previous CEO of Napa County, and completed under CEO Minh Tran in 2018, a thorough process the County called a 3-year Strategic Planning Plan was undertaken to ascertain how our residents felt about the County’s governance. Multiple public meetings were held throughout the communities here In Napa. The entire process was evaluated through a process that involved hiring an outside facilitation team. What was the number one concern expressed? It was a lack of trust in our county Board of Supervisors and its decisions. Since that time, the county justified a developer who built a structure without a building permit in a stream; they permitted a custom-crush facility on Dry Creek Road even though 8 wells were drilled and the neighbors’ wells were negatively affected, the Rector plateau has been decimated by the stripping of its natural vegetation until it looks like a strip-mined area from the air. The county has continued to allow expansions of existing and new wineries without regard to the need for science-based water analysis and have exemplified their pro-development stance over and over; the crowning achievement being the Walt Ranch project above the Napa city’s reservoir in the eastern hills. In my opinion, the trust has been further eroded. Trust is difficult to achieve and easily lost. Certainly, a pause in development is needed, as our water resources are stretched thinner, but the developments continue unabated.
This brings us to the state-mandated establishment of a Groundwater Sustainability Plan for Napa County. It requires a Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA) be established and a plan for the short and long-term water sustainability here and in all the state’s water jurisdictions. In Napa County, an attempt was made to circumvent that requirement through a process called the “alternative plan.” This essentially was attempted by saying we had enough data from years of monitoring that we didn’t need to establish a GSA because “ all is just fine here” with water resources in our valley. The state turned this “alt-plan down.” On December 18, just prior to Christmas, the next non-transparent step was for our Board of Supervisors (BOS) to name themselves the groundwater agency. None of the BOS are hydrologists or scientists with expertise in water issues. This turned this from an environmental issue into a political one and was a clear power play to keep all the authority within the elected officials running the county.
The BOS then hand-picked the majority of the new Groundwater Sustainability Plan Advisory Committee ( 25 members total ) and then selected the rest from those that applied. This process was biased and flawed. None were chosen from disadvantaged communities, as mandated by the state and none from Napa Vision 2050, a local land use advocacy group. The lack of transparency and exclusion of members of color and the disadvantaged community was a clear violation of the intent fostered by the state.
This is the atmosphere under which the 18 meetings of the GSPAC were run. Utilizing historical data and multi-year running averages, which meeting guests from NOAA and DFW cautioned as a poor methodology, the team from Luhdorff and Scalmanini (LSCE) fashioned presentations and conclusions to convince the GSPAC members that we currently and in the future have a water balance that will continue to prove sustainable. The hydrological models informed the members that all is well, in spite of the visual evidence to the contrary. This year, for the first time in recorded history, the length of the Napa River was bone dry. Wells throughout the county were failing throughout the sub basin and a massive water trucking industry was born. Still, the process went on, with a blind eye to the critical shortages of supply due to drought conditions and likely over-extraction from the approximate 10,000 wells in the valley floor, called the sub basin for agency purposes. A side note here: the county measures only 40 wells out of this total, and only 21 are production wells. This is woefully inadequate and is at the crux of the decisions from the environmental members to vote no on the completed plan. Section 12 of the plan calls for only four additional wells by fall of 2021; not accomplished.
It is difficult for anyone awake to accept that we have sustainable water supply when the climate crisis-induced water shortages are already evident. The modeling had significant uncertainties and was overly optimistic. Many troublesome factors reared up during the meetings. Initially, PBES Director Morrison spoke of the need to study the effects from the frontal range recharge, the direct influence on the sub basin’s water availability because two-thirds of the water used for crop irrigation in the valley floor comes from the hillsides. The forests that blanket our ag watershed and open space wildlands provide the aquifer recharge, flows into the reservoirs and the tributaries to the Napa River. However, as ludicrous as this sounds, Morrison later limited the discussion on the watersheds because the “watersheds are not in the scope of the plan.” In reality, the water that is collected and slowly released is directly related to the water available in the valley floor. And the county continues to allow deforestation for vineyards and wineries in this AWOS land. It is impossible to figure out sustainability in the future while ignoring the value of this recharge data.
During a later meeting, when discussing the need to examine the interconnection of surface water and groundwater and the effects of groundwater-dependent ecosystems (GDE’s), it became apparent to all members that we have woefully inadequate stream monitors along the 30 miles of the Napa River. When push came to shove, the representatives from the grape growers spoke about just using one because “we don’t need to complicate the measuring.” Ideally, we need stream monitors throughout the tributaries, above and below the reservoirs. Was this obfuscation to the truth that over-extraction of groundwater for viticulture is de-watering the Napa River? It seems so. This same member, lobbying for the monoculture industry here, demanded that undesirable results (UR’s) must be encountered THREE (3) consecutive years before a trigger is met requiring real action. Additionally, 20% of the RMS wells levels must be below the minimum threshold for three consecutive years. This is not satisfactory knowing we already are in a climate change-induced water shortage. As Dr. Manfree wrote recently, “ If monitoring is inadequate, the clarity is impossible to ascertain as the triggers will not be activated when they should and the projected management actions (PMA’s) won’t happen, and can we please stop digging the hold deeper or can we back out just a bit.” From the environmental perspective, it is just buying a bit of time before the predictable and unfortunate end result is reached. This summer, Dr. Manfree and a field team spent three months collecting data on the state of the county’s tributaries and river. Their resultant information, called the Refugia Project was available to the GSPAC, but was ignored by the county and Luhdorff and Scalmanini.
Many specific items were brought to the attention of the county, but “kick the can down the road” attitudes prevailed. The plan projects a net decrease in available water supply of nearly 2,000 AFY by 2051 but does nothing to provide an overall approach for addressing that. This at the same time we continue to allow demands to increase from development and increased water extraction. Model uncertainties only confuse the subject. LSCE acknowledge that the conditions we have encountered in the last two years are outside the realm of the climate scenarios used in the modeling. This should be cause for significant alarm and action. The “warmer, drier” scenario only looks at precipitation reductions of 6.1%, which is unlikely, while the “wetter” scenario assumes an increase of 20%, again highly improbable.
In 2014 the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act was introduced by the state. This began a shift towards looking into the future with a keen eye on the warming and drying influence from climate change and mega-droughts. The cumulative monthly rainfall for the year 2020-2021 was the driest year on record and with the exception of 2016-2017 is indicative of the last decade of this trend. Yet using historical data projected into the future, LSCE’s model projects precipitation to hold generally steady into the decade. The projected climate model shows more than average rainfall as far out at 2070!
To those environmental constituents involved in the GSPAC process, the county and LSCE have followed the minimum requirements and have set a low bar. The Napa River is the most intact watershed from which anadromous fish have access to the Sacramento/San Joaquin/San Francisco Bay system. The Napa River is the largest tributary to the bay system excluding the Sacramento River and is therefore important to the entire bay area. Limiting the scope by excluding the invaluable data related to the surface/ groundwater interconnect is short-sighted.
Interestingly, the most pertinent aspects of the plan development didn’t come until the end. Clearly, not enough time was given to review the plan. Unacceptable time constraints necessitated additional meetings and incomplete reviews from the community. And most troubling was the clear mandate to take immediate action. Chapter 11 of the plan speaks of the need for implementation and describes a framework under which to implement the plan. It is simply a plan to do a plan. A Technical Working Group (TWG) will be assembled to advise the GSA. The TWG will have no authority and therefore nothing will be implemented without the vote of a majority of the Board of Supervisors. Once again the decisions will be biased by the supervisor’s political bias. Without mandates for specific implementation, coupled with magical thinking on the impacts from our climate crisis, with insufficient and outdated historical data, and while ignoring watershed information, and no talk about limiting well development and additional extractions, the framework for this plan is wholly insufficient. Right now there are hundreds of development projects on tap in the county. Ignoring the increased “straws” into our groundwater is nothing short of criminal. We need the truth to be told. We don’t have adequate data to know our current situation and not acknowledging that our General Plan states we will develop approximately 5,000 more acres for wineries and grapes is not acceptable.
It is ironic that the greatest injustice will be felt by the residents of our cities. The reservoirs that provide water to Napa communities are physically surrounded by land controlled by our county elected officials. All of the action or inaction regarding water quality and quantity directly effect the city residents. This is an indisputable and alarming conflict; one which the county should understand and take immediate action. In today’s media, it was front-page news that the state will likely not be sending any water from the state water project to Napa. It leaves all our cities in a quandary. This is a frightening scenario; one that will likely require drastic cutbacks for all. This is nothing short of a crisis and requires immediate emergency action on the part of the county government. Can the lost trust be regained? We’ll see.