Alastair Bland, NEWS DEEPLY
Residents are concerned that plans to cut down 14,000 oak trees to make way for grapevines will impact groundwater, fish habitat and climate change mitigation.
In the small community of Circle Oaks, California, a few miles east of the wine-soaked Napa Valley, residents are fuming over a wealthy Texas couple’s plans to cut down 14,000 adult oak trees and replant the cleared woodland with 209 acres (85 hectares) of irrigated grapevines. The project, opponents warn, will destroy fish and wildlife habitat, reduce the environment’s resilience to climate change, and drain groundwater reserves.
“They’re going to be using about two times the water our community uses,” says Ron Tamarisk, who has lived in the small town of Circle Oaks with his wife, Nancy, since the 1960s. Tamarisk says the community’s wells have never run dry before, but locals are concerned the proposed vineyard will deplete their supply.
“This is going to dewater Milliken Creek,” says Chris Malan, who lives in a rural unincorporated area just east of the city of Napa and very close to the project site. She is referring to a stream that feeds Milliken Reservoir, from which the city of Napa receives water.
The couple behind the project, Craig Hall and Kathryn Walt Hall, are already well established in the local wine industry. Craig Hall, who has led a career in Texas as a real estate developer, told Dallas News in 2014 that he expected to sell as much as $50 million in wines in 2015, mainly through the couple’s Hall and Walt wine labels. Now, he and his wife’s new project, first introduced in 2006, is on the verge of becoming reality. The proposal to expand their Walt Ranch vineyard was approved in December by Napa County’s board of supervisors.
Locals are outraged by the county’s lenience toward the wine industry in general, which many sources claim exerts political influence over county decision making.
“If this project goes through, it establishes a precedent that a rich newcomer can come in and get their way,” says Randy Dunn, a resident of the small town of Angwin, in the hills northeast of Napa. Dunn is also a winemaker. He grows 35 acres of grapes, mostly cabernet, and says he felled a single oak tree to plant his current vines in the mid-1990s.
The Walt Ranch developers initially planned to cut down almost 30,000 trees. They downsized the plan last year in response to general opposition and to questions about the legality of how the new vines would be irrigated. There was talk for a time of pumping in water from another watershed entirely, that of Putah Creek, a Sacramento River tributary.
Read more at: Water Concerns Arise from Napa Area Vineyard’s Plan to Fell — Water Deeply