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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Napa Valley Floods: Turning Water in to Wine?

Air Date: Week of

California's Napa Valley is known around the world for its wines. But in California, it’s almost as famous for its floods. Napa valley is one of the most flood prone areas in the northern part of the state. But there’s a remedy in the works. Residents of Napa county will vote on a sales tax that would help fund a two hundred million dollar flood control project. The idea may be a national model for keeping people safe and dry while also restoring river systems. Cheryl Colopy reports from the Napa Valley.


CURWOOD: California's Napa Valley is known around the world for its wines. But in California, it's almost as famous for its floods. Napa Valley is one of the most flood-prone areas in the northern part of the state. But there's a remedy in the works. Residents of Napa County will vote on a sales tax that would help fund a $200 million flood control project. The idea may be a national model for keeping people safe and dry while also restoring river systems. Cheryl Colopy reports from the Napa Valley.

(Pouring rain)

COLOPY: The Napa Valley flooded last year and 2 years before that, and could again this year if the West Coast deluge continues as predicted. So now, when it rains, Bob Johnstone doesn't sleep at night. He paces, his stomach in a knot. His business, Napa Printing and Graphics, has been flooded 4 times. In 1995, muddy water rushed into his building. It ripped doors from their casings and toppled heavy printing presses.

(Press machinery running)

JOHNSTONE: One day I've got this great business with 17 employees and we're growing and we have a great reputation. And the next day it doesn't exist.

COLOPY: Bob Johnstone had to let his employees go, gut the building, and start over. Now, he has a system for warding off such heavy damage: a folding steel wall, combined with sump pumps and a generator.


JOHNSTONE: This is the system. And in the event of a flood warning, we come out and we unlock this. We take big steel angle irons and we bolt them...

COLOPY: The system cost Mr. Johnstone $60,000, but he hopes he can retire it soon. He hopes a voter referendum will help make regular flooding here a thing of the past.

JOHNSTONE: Measure A will prevent the 100-year flood and I'll be able to sleep during winters when it rains. These people are going to feel a lot more secure and a lot better about being here. It's 8 times more expensive not to do Measure A. To continue to pay for the damage, it costs around 8 times more than to prevent it forever.

COLOPY: Napa residents will vote in early March on Measure A. It would increase the local sales tax a half cent for the next 20 years to fund river restoration projects designed to provide long-term flood control.

(Ducks quacking)

BLOCH: This has worked. Every winter when the rains get heavy and there's any threat of flooding, the television cameras come to park and wait like vultures for a real flood to happen...

COLOPY: Moira Johnston-Bloch is president of Friends of the Napa River. She points out the low bridges in downtown Napa, which act like dams when the water is high. The new flood plan calls for raising these bridges, and for turning a nearby area now used only for parking into a river bypass. It would be a park most of the year, but a lowered gate would allow flood waters to inundate it when the river rises. Further downstream, dikes built in the last century to create farm lands would be removed to restore the river's natural channel and hundreds of acres of marsh lands. Moira Johnston-Bloch.

BLOCH: In today's world, you don't just put, dredge a river, put up levees and fill the sides with concrete. You have to respect the natural dynamics of the river, the natural health of the river. And what we've done is to let our river go back to its natural floodplain, but to design it such that where we create new floodplains we don't disrupt the people on its banks.

COLOPY: Ms. Johnston-Bloch says the new plan will also help the threatened steelhead trout by restoring spawning habitat. The Napa Plan is one of a number of flood plans being developed nationwide as federal, state, and regional agencies move toward working with rivers rather than fighting them. But river restoration experts are especially excited about the Napa Plan, because it grew out of the community itself, instead of being imposed from outside. Ann Riley is the executive director of the Waterways Restoration Institute in Berkeley.

RILEY: If plans originate from the bottom to the top, if they are community-based, and the members sitting around the table are co-equal partners, you greatly increase the chances of having a successful project.

(Ambient voices)

COLOPY: At the Measure A campaign headquarters, there's a pile of large signs that read “STOP FLOODING, YES ON A,” in bright yellow against a background of flood waters rising. Dave Dickson of the Napa County Flood Control and Water Conservation District hopes the Napa County vote will cap a 30-year effort to come up with a flood control plan. An earlier plan passed in the city of Napa, but failed county-wide. Mr. Dickson says the new plan should be much more attractive throughout the county, because it doesn't focus just on the most developed areas.

DICKSON: What's so important is that this is a watershed-wide approach. It's not just the city of Napa flood problems. Yes, the project is more developed in Napa, it's more expensive, they have the biggest problems, and they generate the most sales tax. But it truly is a valley-wide flood management and river restoration plan.

COLOPY: Dave Dickson says there's no organized opposition to the tax measure, although there's been grumbling from some of the land owners whose property would become part of the floodplain. Some others, who wanted to see a dam on the river to ensure a water supply, are also disappointed, but the chief obstacle is that in tax-averse California, tax hikes like this one need a two thirds majority to pass. And only a third of such measures have been successful. Still, Napa's Measure A is going to the voters when the economy is healthy, residents worry constantly about floods, and the forecast is... rain..... until April.

(Torrential rain continues)

COLOPY: For Living on Earth, I'm Cheryl Colopy in the Napa Valley.



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