Is the Planning Commission beginning to functionally operate on the fact that we are in a climate crisis that impacts not only our water supply into the future but our fire risk as well?

On Wednesday, September 15, 2021, the commission tentatively voted to not increase the visitation for Pickett Road Wine Company, stating its location in a high fire severity zone, the fact that the two-fold requested increase was far above the average of other 12,000 gallon wineries, and, importantly, the fact that the canyon is an area of troubled water resources. As Commissioner Gallagher stated, “We know we are in a water crisis and that we will continue to be in a water crisis and we need to start looking at everything from that point of view.”

This is a sea change. According to the modeling of the Water Availability Analysis (WAA), the minimal increase in water usage would not stress the available water. At any other time, the winery’s ask for an increase in visitation would probably have been approved.

Still, neighbors cried foul. Many surrounding wells were dewatered, and Simmons Creek has gone dry. We are all used to hearing the neighbors’ reports of dewatered wells dismissed as “anecdotal,” often with a dose of patronizing sympathy, in favor of the modeling of the official WAA, in this case, which was based on 2010 data and a 30-year rainfall average.

But this time Commissioner Gallagher called this dismissal into question. ”A lot of this [WAA] is based on modeling which… is not entirely appropriate anymore given the drought situation and the forecast for continued dry conditions.”

She added that our county does not yet have a handle on cumulative impact. “Cumulative impacts of one project may seem small, but if you add them together, there is an impact.”

Commissioner Cottrell acknowledged the neighbors’ worry about water security and the dewatering of Simmons Creek and the profound impact of a project on a neighborhood. “This underscores an issue our whole county will be facing,” she added.

This shift to a growing acknowledgment of the crises, in part due to climate change, in part because of the increased intensity of use allowed by our county in fire and water problem areas, is not a moment too soon. Our county has spent 13 years working/not working on a Climate Action Plan, which has yet to be finalized and adopted. Wineries have been permitted in “areas of interest” which means, water-deficient areas, despite neighbors having to haul water after a project’s well starts pumping.

Meanwhile, in the last four years, about fifty percent of Napa County has burned. This year not only Simmons Creek but also Napa River’s streambed is dry in places, threatening native species of fish and other wildlife. The cities are rationing water after the state could deliver only 5% of the allocation from the Northbay Aqueduct, and the county reservoirs did not fill.

County residents reliant on underperforming or dry wells are restricted to purchasing 6000 gallons of trucked drinking water per month by the city of Napa, which sells the water. This restriction is in place regardless of livestock or the number of people on the property.

Until now, the County has proceeded with business as usual, even under these extraordinary circumstances. Isn’t it time we stop permitting more development until we understand our water situation more fully and until our forests are in safer shape?