Wine Consumer

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Restoring the Rutherford Reach

Balzac Communications, Paul Wagner
10/02/2013

Restoring the Rutherford Reach of the Napa River

The Napa River Rutherford Reach Restoration Project is a very good example of a large group of local landowners sacrificing land (which in the Napa Valley is valued at around $250,000 per acre) and providing some of the funding to achieve something that is truly greater than the sum of its parts. And the Rutherford Dust Society, as the association of wine producers along this stretch of the river, has been the motivating force for this project.

It all began ten years ago when Davie Piña, a local grape grower and vineyard manager, was working with two vineyard owners on opposite sides of the river. Each year one of the vineyard owners would note that his side of the riverbank was lower than the other, and he would ask Davie to raise the levee a bit.  Davie put two and two together, and asked the two property owners to work together to resolve the issue – and that grew to include the property owners on either side of them. Before you knew it, we had a major project on our hands. And that’s when we called in the experts.

The Rutherford Dust Society partnered with the Napa County Resource Conservation District and Napa County in 2009 with a Memorandum of Understanding, creating the Rutherford Dust Restoration Team to carry out the Napa River Rutherford Reach Restoration Project. This private/public partnership has worked out extremely well; the framework now serves as a national model for a successful effort to restore and improve habitat for the recovery of steelhead trout and Chinook salmon, and other projects of this scale.

Salmon habitat restoration efforts are critically important in the Napa River watershed, because it is designated as one of only eight remaining essential streams for the recovery of steelhead in the San Francisco Bay Area. With more than twice the amount of habitat available than any of the other essential streams, the Napa River drainage is considered by the Center for Ecosystem Management and Restoration (2007) to be the highest priority watershed for the recovery of the San Francisco Bay Estuary’s native salmon populations. 

NOAA/NMFS has designated the restoration of the Napa River watershed a high priority, as the river provides critical habitat for steelhead within the Central California Coast distinct population segment, which is protected under the Endangered Species Act, as well as fall-run Chinook salmon.

The efforts of the Rutherford Dust Restoration Team have inspired other private property owners throughout the watershed to restore the Napa River for the benefit of wildlife and the community. Landowners are dedicated to preserving the environment while sustaining the viticultural legacy that is the backbone of the economy in the famous Napa Valley.

A key role has been played by the Napa County Resource Conservation District. The Napa County RCD has been monitoring the steelhead trout and Chinook salmon populations with a rotary screw trap on the Napa River for the past five years. They are seeing consistent numbers of healthy steelhead each year, indicating the watershed supports a relatively stable population to build from. In addition, Chinook salmon are successfully spawning in the Napa River in most years, and this may lead to a self-sustaining population. It is unclear whether the salmon seen each year were born in the Napa River or strayed from other systems, or whether their offspring are making it back or not. However, it is known that salmon have successfully spawned in the Napa River for at least the past ten years.

The Napa River Restoration Project, starting with 4.5 miles in Rutherford, and continuing 9.5 miles downstream through Oakville and Oak Knoll, is supporting the conservation of salmon populations through the overall enhancement of stream habitat and function. The river restoration design increases stream habitat complexity, connectivity, and function. Alcoves are being constructed at tributary confluences to create refuges for rearing salmon. Habitat structures, made of trees harvested from the widening of the restored channel, and clusters of boulders are added to the river to provide cover and promote the collection of spawning gravel.

In winter 2013 an adult steelhead was witnessed emerging from cover under a recently installed habitat structure, and in spring 2013 biologists from the Napa County RCD photographed juvenile steelhead and Chinook salmon utilizing the structures.

Key accomplishments of the Napa River Rutherford Reach Restoration Project (2002-2013):

  • 100% participation by 28 landowners
  • 77% completion                                               
  • 3.3 of 4.5 stream miles restored
  • 2.5 miles of berm setbacks
  • Eroding banks reduced by one-half                                        
  • 12 acres of high-flow fish refuge created
  • 21 acres of riparian forest recreated                       
  • 71 fish habitat structures installed
  • Satisfied 80% of the TMDL water quality regulation goal for reducing fine sediment
  • Private-public partnership now recognized as a model for river restoration