Walking the River

Every year I am dazzled by the autumn views along the Silverado Trail.  Breathtaking, awesome, splendiferous, are words that come to mind.  The gold, scarlet and green, with the late afternoon sun glowing through the vines bring a surge of gratitude to be able to live in this valley.  In November I was on my way to Rutherford for a special opportunity to get up close and personal with the Napa River.  As I drove north on the Silverado Trail, marveling at said vines and views, I realized that many of our visitors may not even be aware that the Napa River meanders this far north through the valley.  Gazing out over the vineyards the river is hidden; one might think the land just stretches solid and flat, straight across from the Vaca Mountains in the east to the Mayacamas in the west.  But down in its well worn trench, crossed by our historic stone bridges is the artery of life as we know it in our famous Napa Valley.

In our history the river was used for its bounty of stone for buildings, dredging the rocks which left too sandy a bottom for the natural habitat of salmon and trout.  The flow of the river has been controlled by building up the banks to protect one property, only to send it flowing too high to another; and so it goes as we worked with and against our Napa River.  I believe that for centuries the people living and thriving in the Napa Valley have held the Napa River close to their hearts and fortunately, we learn from our mistakes.  People will take a stand to repair and restore what seemed like a good idea at the time.

Since 1994 the Rutherford Dust Society has stood firmly committed “to encourage and promote the highest quality standards in grape growing and winemaking in the Rutherford Viticultural Area.”  (www.RutherfordDust.org)  In 2002 a subcommittee of the Society was formed to initiate a plan to manage and restore the Napa River that is so vital to their land and community: the Rutherford Dust (Napa River) Restoration Team, RDRT, or think of it as “our dirt”!  The restoration project will manage and restore the 4.5 mile stretch of the Napa River and its watershed between the Zinfandel Lane Bridge and Oakville Cross Road.  RDRT has successfully pioneered an innovative partnership with Napa County to realize this vision.  With over five years of detailed engineering and ecological studies the project construction commenced with Phase I in July of this year.  The team is chaired by Rutherford Dust Society board member, Davie Piña of Piña Vineyard Management, LLC and includes over twenty five riverside property owners.  The project is coordinated by leadership from Napa County, the Napa County Resource Conservation District, and Napa County Water Conservation.  To review the details of the project please visit the project website at:  http://www.napawatersheds.org/Content/10027/Rutherford_Dust_Society_Project.html

For my “river walk” experience I met with Gretchen Hayes, of Tessera Watershed Partners, and facilitator of the RDRT team.  Gretchen’s professional title is “Geomorphologist”; geo = earth, morph = change, and “ology” being the study of such.  Studying the changes in the earth and bringing her expertise to monitor the flow and erosion of our Napa River.  Gretchen represents the folks I admire that get right down in the dirt of our land to figure out how to support nature and give back what we have taken away.

I wriggled into big rubber waders, cinched them up to my chest and followed Gretchen down the bank to a section of river.  Our objective was to be able to walk right into the river and be surrounded by the trees, bushes, rocks, gravel, birds and critters that make their home along the banks.  I learned that a river “pools, riffles and glides”.  Create in your mind the meandering line of the river, as the water pushes through a gravel bank (a riffle) and then rushes into an open space (a pool) then gently glides to the next riffle.  “Pool, riffle and glide” sounds like a graceful dance step doesn’t it?

The section of river that we explored exhibited how the river banks have eroded below the land surface, down 15 to 20 feet.  Great oak and willow trees, root systems exposed will inevitably break away and fall into the river.   “LWD” was pointed out to me: “large, woody debris”; tree trunks, stumps and limbs as we know them.  These logs, pushed to the side, form a new extended bank and eventually become a beneficial habitat for fish and wildlife.  If needed the restoration team will introduce logs into the river for this purpose to aid the flow of the river.

We’ll have more salmon swimming and spawning and flourishing in our river!  There are many ripples winding around the gravel banks, providing the perfect environment for spawning.  As the Rutherford Dust Napa River Restoration advances there is a plan for a salmon ladder at the Zinfandel Bridge.  Our Napa River, often chided for being sluggish, will be brought back to a thriving natural habitat for wildlife and our community.

Most areas of the river are on private property, and not accessible for the public.  Therefore, I encourage everyone with a curiosity and love of our Napa River to contact the Napa County Resource Conservation District to participate in their programs that bring people to the river throughout the year.  Visit: http://www.naparcd.org/programs.html or call the Napa County RCD at 707-252-4188 x100.

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