Big Napa Valley habitat restoration project to begin next year

The multi-year project at 14 sites over 1.6 miles will create floodplains and seasonal wetlands — in short, a more natural habitat for steelhead and other wildlife.|

Vintner Ted Hall's wish that steelhead trout could more easily go from the Napa River on the Napa Valley floor to the Bear Creek spawning grounds in the Mayacamas Mountains is getting a boost.

Bale Slough is a key. This waterway running through Rutherford wine country helps link river and spawning grounds, but lacks good aquatic and riparian habitat.

"If we could only get the fish from the river under Highway 29 and a little bit further, we'd really be in business," Hall said.

Bale Slough over the decades has been channelized and straightened. Next summer, the Napa County Flood Control and Water Conservation District will launch a Bale Slough restoration that ultimately could total $6.6 million.

The multi-year project at 14 sites over 1.6 miles will create floodplains and seasonal wetlands — in short, a more natural habitat for steelhead and other wildlife.

Hall has worked on the idea for about a decade, getting other landowners and various agencies such as the Napa County Resource Conservation District interested. He'll have a front-row seat as things unfold.

Bale Slough runs through various Napa Valley floor properties, including Hall's Long Meadow Ranch Rutherford Estate. Bear Creek spawning grounds in the mountains have headwaters extending through various properties, including Hall's Long Meadow Ranch Mayacamas Estate.

The state Wildlife Conservation Board last week approved a $1.7 million grant for the initial Bale Slough restoration work. The state Water Resources Control Board is contributing $800,000. This $2.5 million first phase involves five of the 14 restoration sites.

Beyond that, more grants will be needed. Hall said the entire Bale Slough restoration project could take as long as 20 years, depending on how grants come in.

Since 2002, Napa County has seen the Napa River in the heart of wine country restored at various sites at a cost of some $40 million. Bale Slough is a sequel to the Napa River Rutherford Reach restoration, completed in 2014, and the Oakville-to-Oak Knoll Reach project, which was finished this March.

"We've done millions of dollars of work improving the (Napa River) stem and habitat," Hall said. "That really doesn't help us much in terms of increasing the fish population unless we have spawning grounds."

About 14 acres of wetlands and riparian habitat are to be restored on Bale Slough. To make this happen, Hall and other property owners will lose about 3.7 acres of vineyards.

"It's a big contribution from the landowners. To rededicate this land and pull out vines is a big deal," said Jeremy Sarrow of the flood control district.

The initial work to start next summer involves properties owned by Round Pond and Beaulieu Vineyard, Sarrow said. Future work will include land owned by Long Meadow Ranch, Alpha Omega, the Gallegos family, Grgich Hills, DeCarle Vineyard and Provenance.

"In some capacity or another, they are rededicating land back to the stream," Sarrow said.

Hall said the project is the "right thing to do." Vineyard land to be lost to the project is on the margins — three rows here, five rows there. The project will eliminate flooding.

Another benefit, Sarrow said, is reduced property damage from stream bank erosion.

There are also the Bear Creek spawning grounds to consider. Here, the news appears to be good.

"It's really good habitat," said Richard Thomasser, manager of the flood control district.

Hall said the headwaters flow through several thousand acres of "wild forever" or limited agricultural land. The Hall, Atwater, Coppola and Garden properties have granted conservation easements to the Land Trust of Napa County. The state and federal governments own adjacent properties.

Steelhead trout spend much of their lives in the ocean and return to freshwater to spawn. The county's Watershed Information & Conservation Council says the Napa River watershed may have historically supported runs of 6,000 to 8,000 steelhead.

There's no count of how many steelhead can be found in the Napa River and its tributaries today, though scientists agree it's only an echo of the historic number. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries has set the goal of having 4,700.

Other projects are also underway to benefit steelhead trout. The county Resource Conservation District and Water Audit California are looking at ways to remove 51 small dams and other barriers to fish migration.

Also, the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board in 2017 required grape growers in the Napa River watershed to prepare farm plans that control runoff of sediments and other materials. One reason is to protect steelhead and their spawning grounds.

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