Massive vineyard seen as threat to Napa Valley’s water

A coalition of environmental groups, a homeowners’ organization and a public water agency in Napa County have filed appeals against a sprawling hillside vineyard project that they argue imperils water resources, sensitive habitat and the climate in the heart of wine country.

The local chapter of the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Living Rivers Council, the Circle Oaks Homes Association and the Circle Oaks County Water District appealed the unanimous decision by the Napa County Board of Supervisors in December to approve the Walt Ranch vineyard development.

The project on behalf of luxury wine brand Hall Wines calls for the conversion of 316 acres of woodland atop Atlas Peak northeast of Napa to vineyards, removing 14,000 trees and building roads. While the project was scaled down from its original size and the developers says it will be an environmentally sensitive project, opponents say it still puts residents and the environment at risk as it violates the California Environmental Quality Act.

The 2,300-acre Walt Ranch is exhibit A of what critics say are rising threats to water quality and the environment at large caused by rampant vineyard, winery and tourism development in Napa County. FERN explored the issue in an in-depth story last year, “Napa’s water war with Big Wine.” 

The appellants are each challenging the project on different issues—impact on the climate, sedimentation into the Napa River watershed, threats to rare and endangered species, the health of drinking water and soil stability.

“If this luxury vineyard goes in, thousands of trees will be cut down, acres of wildlife habitat will be destroyed, new roads will be built, and limited water supplies will be depleted,” said Aruna Prabhala, staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement. “The project is the step in the wrong direction for the county, and the local community and wildlife will pay the price.”

The 500 residents of the Circle Oaks neighborhood near Walt Ranch fear vineyard wells may deplete their sole source of drinking water and fire suppression during dry months. The Circle Oaks water district wells are adjacent to Walt Ranch’s deeper wells and draw from the same aquifer. The water agency’s suit claims Walt Ranch’s environmental impact report failed to disclose potential significant impact to the wells.

“I have a concern that temporary draw downs during the months of heavy use may leave the district without water,” said Ron Tamarisk, member of the Circle Oaks water district’s board of directors.