The County Voice

A River Runs Through It: Napa County Flood Control
National County Government Month

There is at least one biblical reference about turning water into wine—and there’s a whole chapter about flooding. Both of those things happen all the time in Napa County. Okay, the grape vines have to help turn water into wine, and now, even the flooding may be a thing of the past! Napa County is about 75 percent of the way through a multi-year, multi-project flood control program that has not only reduced the threat of flooding, it’s become a collaborative model for approaching multi-agency public works projects.

The Napa River is one of the last undammed rivers in California, running through some of the most valuable and well known ag land in the state. The river winds its way past world-class vineyards and wineries and through the towns of Calistoga and St. Helena. The banks of the Napa River are just more than a mile from the world renowned French Laundry restaurant in Yountville. Eventually, the river runs right through the center of the City of Napa on its way to San Pablo Bay.

So the local governments, environmental community, grape growers, wineries, downtown businesses and ordinary citizens all had something to say about how to handle the flooding.  And so did the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency involved in most flood control projects. Any work involving the river had to be a collective effort.—and it would need funding from federal, state and local sources.

How could they raise the money? And how could they reduce the flood risks without resorting to a lot of concrete and rock-lined levees? That’s how the Army Corps of Engineers typically deals with flood control channels. But the people of Napa County wanted to reduce flooding and enhance the habitat for fish, birds—and people—at the same time. As Napa County Supervisor Diane Dillon told me, they wanted a better way.

They came up with the Living River concept. They would use logs and living trees, not concrete, to shore up river banks. They would improve a “bypass” area that is only wet during high flows. The rest of the time, it would be a park with hiking and biking trails. From its northern beginning to the wetlands in the south, they would make the river less prone to flooding and enhance the habitat, too. And they would put a sales tax increase on the ballot to provide the local funding.

A tall order—but they did it, and now they are seeing the benefits in Napa County. Moreover, they are showing other localities how a collaborative approach might take a little more time at first, but it can result in a better project and getting more done in less time in the long run. 

April is National County Government Month. This year the theme is Transportation and Infrastructure. CSAC has produced four videos and blogs that profile county projects that fit that theme. This is the third of four installments. See the video here.

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