Why This Project is a Travesty for Napa County

A guest editorial by Sue Wagner
Sue Wagner is a 34-year resident of the community of Circle Oaks. She serves as a volunteer liaison to the Circle Oaks Homes Association and Circle Oaks Water District. A former member of the Board of Directors of the Circle Oaks Homes Association, she served as their General Manager for five years. She is a certified paralegal and has operated her independent paralegal service since 1996.

For many of us who live in Napa County and have observed the steady erosion of our environment due to the proliferation of more and more vineyards and wineries, the hue and cry of “when is enough, enough?” has increased substantially over recent months. The effects of changing climate conditions, a severe drought, weakening water sources, and relentless wildfire have irrevocably changed life as we once knew it in this beautiful valley.

The Napa County Board of Supervisors, charged with being stewards of our land and natural resources, have time and again provided their “rubber-stamp” of approval for further invasion into our hillside watersheds and oak woodlands. By their complicit approval of the conversion of oak woodlands situated in our watersheds into more vineyards and larger wineries, the County’s decisions have unwittingly strained the sustainability of our natural resources to nearly beyond the breaking point.

In 2008, Walt Ranch began its unrelenting march for approval of the destruction of 507 acres of oak woodlands in the hills of East Napa near the residential community of Circle Oaks. Water resources were supposedly tested and determined capable of sustaining the burden of the proposed new vineyard. The only well pumping test ever done for this project in 2009 did not even include the closest well to the project, which provides 100% of the water needed by the community of Circle Oaks. Walt Ranch and Circle Oaks share an aquifer whose capacity, because of its geological, volcanic nature, is nearly impossible to determine. Despite the lack of inclusion of Circle Oak’s well in the pumping test, the results were considered ‘good enough’ to demonstrate adequate water supplies for both the proposed vineyard and the community of nearly 200 households.

In subsequent years, water levels in all wells, including Walt’s well, demonstrated significant drops in water levels due to ongoing climate changes. In fact, per Walt’s experts, the rainfall needed to recharge the aquifer to sustain well levels was established at 35 inches per year in the EIR studies ending in 2015. However, rainfall has not reached that average rate for many years. [The Napa WICC website lists the yearly rainfall average for east Napa County at 20-25 inches per year during the wetter years of 1961-1990. (1961-1990, Western Regional Climate Center 2002).]

Among the numerous devastating environmental impacts from this project was the initial plan for destruction by bulldozing and burning more than 28,616 trees. After protests, administrative hearings, and lawsuits, the project was eventually downsized to 316 acres impacted for the planting of 209 acres of vineyards with the estimated loss of over 14,000 trees – trees that are cataloged as being mostly oaks indigenous to Napa County.

Five groups filed appeals against approval of the Walt Ranch Conversion Project after it was approved by the County of Napa in December 2016. Circle Oaks Homes Association and Water District filed suit to protect its water supply and roads & infrastructure. The Living Rivers Council, Sierra Club, and Center for Biodiversity (CBD) sought to protect environmentally sensitive species of flora and fauna, as well as watersheds and oak woodlands. The only argument gaining traction before the Court of Appeals was the CBD’s argument about how Napa County mitigated the Green House Gases (GHG) inevitable from a project of this magnitude.

Citing Walt Ranch’s failure to account for and mitigate the GHG emissions which would be caused by burning over 14,000 trees, the Court of Appeals remanded the action back to Napa County to determine appropriate mitigation measures for the 27,528 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent which would be released by burning of the trees on site.

In 2017 and again in 2020, Napa County experienced devastating wildfires, burning some 50% of Napa County, and some 97% of Walt Ranch. The nature and extent of tree death from both of these burn events are unknown, as Napa County hasn’t required Walt Ranch to provide this information.

In response to the extensive burning of the property slated for vineyard conversion, Walt Ranch has now taken the position that they should not be held accountable for any of the carbon release for the 14,000+ trees to be removed and burned. In their May 5, 2021 letter to Director David Morrison, they offer their solution to commit 124 acres into a conservation easement on the property (248 acres was required to be conserved in the project approval) and to plant either 16,790 oak seedlings or double that amount of if no one appeals the Director’s Notice of Intended Decision.

While Walt’s offer to compromise with the County of Napa on its face appears generous, it is, in fact, disingenuous. Why? Walt was already required to commit 248 acres of Oak Woodlands to a conservation easement. Secondly, the science and the math do not support the contention that has long been Napa County’s standard for oak tree mitigation, which is to replace full-grown oak trees with oak seedlings, typically on a 2 to 1 basis.

A small oak seedling will take over 50 years to reach a size and stature significant enough to begin the carbon sequestration process. When a mature oak tree is lost, it not only loses the ability to provide further carbon sequestration; its disposal releases all of the carbon that it has sequestered in its lifetime. This beautiful, heartbreaking video with local Napa youth exemplifies the message.

Climate change is upon us and can no longer be denied. Napa County’s policies for oak tree mitigation are unrealistic, impractical, and do not serve the purposes for which they were intended. Furthermore, approval of the final hurdle faced by Walt Ranch will bring immeasurable environmental destruction that will impact us now and into future generations.
–Sue Wagner

What Can We Do?
Director Morrison will accept Public Comment prior to entering his decision to amend the EIR with the Revised Mitigation Measure 6-1 (MM 6-1).

Please send written comments opposing approval of this project to Director Morrison before October 1, 2021 at david.morrison@countyofnapa.org, and copy your supervisor, or by mail, to David Morrison, Director, Napa County Planning, Building & Environmental Services, 1195 Third Street, Napa, CA 94558.