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Wine Country Takes Steps to Curb Flooding Problem

Wed September 03, 2008 - West Edition
Frank Hartzell

At first glance, building towering condominiums just inches from the Napa River seems an act of pure hubris.

The local real estate market has been in decline for two years. Worse, the city of Napa historically has been among the least safe of American cities with regard to flooding, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. Napa has suffered disastrous floods five times since 1984, including on New Year’s Eve in both 1997 and 2005, when the area was underwater, and flood control was well under way.

California Wine Country’s best-kept secret is that historically it has ranked with places like New Orleans at the top of the list for flood danger.

Now, Napans are asked to trust one of the most massive, and least known, flood control projects in California to finally make their community safe. No community has ever transformed its fate from the bottom of the Army Corps of Engineers list to the top with a flood control project that didn’t involve a massive dam. But that is just what planners, including the Army Corps, say will happen when this project is completed.

The “when” is one of several unanswered questions.

The flood control project is way behind schedule and over budget.

When county voters passed a half-cent sales tax in 1998 to fund the local share of flood control, officials predicted that central Napa would be fully protected by 2006.

Not even half the work was done by then.

Officially, the flood project’s completion date is now 2011, but no one believes that date is real, reported Kevin Courtney of the Napa Valley Register. Courtney is the only writer who has covered the project from its beginning.

Some say 2014 is more realistic. Pessimists like “In Harm’s Way,” the Napa Creek neighborhood group, say it could be more than a decade away unless the federal government dramatically increases Corps of Engineers funding, Courtney reported.

Everybody in Napa has an opinion on the flood control project, from photojournalist Samanda Dorger, who has documented the transformation of the Napa River, to Francis Ford Coppola who loves making fine wines as much as his more famous product — movies.

Coppola stepped forward to propose restoring the historic Uptown movie theater in downtown Napa at the time the flood control project was approved.

Trusting the promised protection of flood control and attracted by the flurry of activity, many developers have followed suit with mega-projects in the city of Napa, once totally ignored by the Napa Valley located just to the north.

Napa city has long been called the “six pack town of wine country,” featuring employment not in wineries but in a nearby Naval shipyard Kaiser steel plant and the state’s premier mental hospital.

Thanks to flood control and all the construction that has followed, the beer is being traded for more fine wine.

Copia, a food, wine and arts center developed by Robert Mondavi opened in 2001. The late Mondavi was the man who created “Napa” as a top-quality wine identity. In the last seven years, more than $400 million in private and public funds have been invested in various developments in the area between Copia and the Uptown.

For the construction industry, Napa and the North Bay have become something of a ground zero with all the high-dollar government and private projects going in. Several international construction companies have opened offices in the area. At the beginning, government agencies worried that there wouldn’t be enough contractors to fill the demand. Now, so many companies are focused on the Napa area that profit margins are shrinking and bids are getting dangerously tight, the North Bay Business Journal reported.

Contractors are regularly lowering bid amounts, not because of a lack of work and despite escalating concrete, steel and wood costs, local officials say.

The sole reason is the number of companies that are now focusing on the area.

And these are not easy jobs to bid or build.

While much of California builds look-alike strip malls and subdivisions, each project in Napa has created work for architects, as well as construction superintendents.

There is the Oxbow Public Market, a new artisan food hall, and a Ritz-Carlton being finished this summer, again on the banks of the Napa River.

Most impressive is the Canadian firm Ledcor building those unique upscale condos on the riverbank in the heart of downtown, between the library and the county jail. Ledcor specializes in unusual projects, from the upgrade of airports to renovation of a spectacular hotel in Maui, Hawaii.

The 50 condos, ranging from one to three bedrooms, are priced from $700,000 to $1.2 million, and 179 people are on the waiting list, the New York Times reported. Morgan Stanley has taken a big chunk of office space and six upscale restaurants are planned — all of this for a site that was worthless prior to flood control’s promised protection.

Westin Verasa has reported it has pre-sold many of its 161 condo hotel units on the Napa River behind Copia – another spot that would not have been considered safe in the past. Condo hotels, which are maintained as a regular hotel but are individually-owned second housing units, are selling for $500,000 to $1.2 million.

Flood control work is going full speed ahead this summer. Although the source of the money has not been finally resolved, four towering cranes work on a new $37-million bridge, a flood wall, new sidewalks and other amenities.

In total, the city of Napa project will build, remove or make over nine bridges. Four of the these are major vehicle and pedestrian structures. The Army Corps of Engineers is set to take bids later this summer on an estimated $45-million relocation of railroad track used by the Napa Wine Train as well as construction of two bridges. More than 3,000 structures have been approved in Napa since the 1998 vote.

All the building has dramatically increased traffic and wear on county roads. Napa County voters are set to decide this November on another half-cent sales tax to raise $500 million-plus, with 70 percent going to fix the county roads and the rest going to ease south county traffic.

The transformation of Napa into a place safe from floods has accelerated huge hikes in the property values for everyone who lives there, with values falling little even as sales volume has declined due to the mortgage crisis.

Yet, many old-time residents are saddened by the influx of well-dressed strangers. The hotels bring revenue, but, at $250 per night and up, aren’t anyplace relatives of residents can afford. The Napa Valley is already packed with three-, four- and five-star restaurants and hotels aimed at tourists, with the city of Napa itself losing its status as the refuge for people on a family budget.

The condos are primarily being bought as second, third or fourth homes by global business people, or by people from San Francisco priced out of that market, according to reports in various journals.

Freelance photographer Dorger has documented the rapid and stunning transformation of the river. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications. She has shown the changes through the eyes of river users and from the perspective of the river itself on her Web site at

“Just during the time since I began shooting the river, the number of places where people can access it physically or visually has grown tremendously,” said Dorger.

“In the past 8 years, the town has made a complete about-face, literally, in its attitude toward the river. It used to be all of the buildings faced away from it, but the new trail and many of the new or updated business embrace it and offer great views. I think it has improved the economy, the environment, and the visual landscape,” she added.

Napa’s flood control project arose from community defiance of the Army Corps traditional plan of enlarging the river channel and building bigger levees, proposed in 1995. The community considered the Army Corps proposal to be ugly and environmentally insensitive.

With the help of city and state engineers, a community coalition came together that included the newly formed Friends of the Napa River and the Napa Valley Economic Development Corporation, from the Farm Bureau to the Convention and Visitors Bureau, from the Sierra Club to the Chamber of Commerce to a Native American group. All these took part in a series of meetings from January 1996, to May 1997. After thousands of hours of meetings, the coalition achieved consensus on a “living river” design. The Army Corps was involved in that process and remains the key funder and guide of the process.

Living river meant actually putting the river back into its historic flood plain, even where people had built houses and businesses.

Living river design restored the natural slope and width of the river, allowed it to meander as much as possible and retained natural channel features like mud flats, shallows and sandbars.

It created a continuous fish supply and riparian corridor along the river.

Ironically, the current design, utilizing the natural flood control and filtering of wetlands and natural and historic channels, is now believed to be much more practical than the original Army Corps plan.

“I support the idea of giving a river room to flood, to change and to rise and fall with the tide, to let Nature take her course, so to speak. I think permanently moving people and structures out of its wrathful winter path is the wisest long-term solution,” photojournalist Dorger said.

“But there is a downside to everything, and since beginning this documentary in 2001, I have spoken to or heard of countless people who were compelled to move or close their businesses or sell their homes or land to accommodate the project. While all residents of Napa pay an extra half-cent sales tax to fund the project, these people have sacrificed the most for the greater good,” she said.

A bonus of the living river design has been much lower cost of dealing with environmental issues at a time when such concerns have caused each of two major Bay Area bridges to go more than a billion dollars over budget.

But there have been many delays and bumps in the river along the way. The entire premise is to protect Napa from a 100-year flood event. But the prevalence of floods was based on historical data — and that data was found to be flawed.

Funding, plentiful during the Clinton years, slowed down for Democratic Napa during the Bush years and became unpredictable.

Also, Napa Creek emerged as a flooding problem rivaling Napa River, yet it had not been part of the original plans. The 2005 flooding of downtown was primarily caused by the creek.

Community pressure led by In Harms Way steered the Army Corps to create improved plans for the creek — but not fast enough for Napans.

City of Napa and county flood officials are trying to jump-start work on Napa Creek rather than waiting years for the U.S. Army Corps, which intends to complete the difficult task of relocating Napa Valley Wine Train tracks before getting going on Napa Creek, Courtney reported in the Napa Valley Register.

Installation of large culverts on Napa Creek under Main Street is now planned for next summer, with residents still nervous about this winter’s rainy season.

This downstream work has to occur before flood protection can be constructed upstream to protect a neighborhood of some 500 homes and businesses.

Because Army Corps funding is lagging, the city obtained a $3-million federal grant this summer for the lower culverts and has set aside $2 million more in local funds for creek work.

More than 200 contractors have been involved in the project, along with the road work creating the unfamiliar sight of equipment yards throughout Napa.

“I think this project and the efforts of the people, the city, Friends of the Napa River and Army Corps, to work together for an ecologically viable solution that would better the community and environment, while at the same time protecting the city from floods, should be held up as an example to other river communities around the world,” Dorger said. CEG

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