University of California



Napa County, CA – You can’t tell a story about California’s vineyards and water without telling the story about the state’s oak trees.

The pale green leaves and tentacle trunks of valley oaks, blue oaks, coast live oaks, and black oaks that outline California’s golden rolling hills rely on water provided in a few storms every year. Oak woodlands burst with a diversity of life more complex than any of the state’s other ecosystems. They provide homes for 160 species of birds, 80 species of mammals, 80 types of reptiles and amphibians, 5,000 insect species, and 2,000 types of plants.

Since 1950, people have cut down and burned more than one million acres of oak woodlands to plant crops, expand cities, and build rural subdivisions. Today, 10 million acres remain, approximately two-thirds of the state’s original native stands; 80 percent is in the hands of private landowners. Many of these landowners grow grapes, the state’s No. 2 agricultural commodity (wine, table, and raisin grapes combined).

Vineyard owners find themselves in a quandary: they own and make their living from their land, but they don’t own the water or the wildlife. According to law, they are responsible for managing these resources for the public trust, for their generation and generations to come.

Sometimes it takes a while to see that what you’re doing as an individual, multiplied by hundreds of other individuals, is hurting the environment. And thus by the 1980s it became obvious that accepted farming practices were contributing to fouling waterways and threatening wildlife. The disappearing oak woodlands were the key to the survival of the ecosystem upon which the vineyards relied.

Lee Hudson is one of about 1,000 to 1,200 grape growers in the Napa Valley. The 180 acres of vineyards on his 1,800-acre property are divided into small blocks -- 54 parcels of three to 12 acres surrounded by small streams and creeks.

Hudson used to farm his vineyards like other grape growers in the Napa Valley. He planted and disced his vineyards close to the edges of creeks, and found himself in a never-ending war with the stream in which both sides suffered. Although he kept putting in riprap, the stream bank continually eroded. Although the vines along the stream grew, they didn’t bear fruit that winemakers wanted. Hudson also ploughed the dirt between the vine rows, applied pre-emergent herbicides annually, and left the rows bare during the winter. The rains washed soil and herbicide into the streams. To control fungus, he did 14 sulfur applications a year. Insecticides were applied whether they were needed or not.

As a result of the collective farming practices of an entire valley – in addition to the effects of urbanization -- streams gummed up with eroding soils. Stream banks eroded and collapsed. Pesticides and herbicides flowed freely into waterways. Fish began disappearing, as did freshwater shrimp – Napa’s aquatic canary in the coalmine. Wildlife was isolated to smaller and smaller patches, which threatened their survival.

The greater community noticed the damage and began talking about laws and ordinances. With water regulations on the horizon, the Napa County Resource Conservation District helped grape growers in the Huichica watershed found the Huichica Creek Stewardship program in 1986 to address the water and environmental issues. The California freshwater shrimp was listed as an endangered species, and the Huichica Creek was one of its last remaining habitats. “It behooved us as landowners and farmers not to be put out of business,” Hudson says.

The growers began a series of meetings with researchers and experts from the University of California Davis Extension, the California Department of Fish and Game, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service to implement methods of sustainable farming.

“We made a very strong political union with environmentalists,” says Hudson. “Agriculture needs to work with the environmental community. We’ve got something to learn from them, and they’ve got something to learn from us.”

In 1991, Napa County decided to require that vines be set back from streams by distances that increased from 35 to 85 feet as slopes steepened. Landowners who wanted to plant new vineyards had to develop a management plan.

The 30 growers in the Huichica Creek Stewardship program began making farming decisions based on field conditions rather than from a theoretical perspective, says Hudson. It wasn’t an easy transition. “Changing management styles takes a lot of effort,” he says. “There’s so much inertia.”

Today, Hudson and his crew inspect each of the 54 blocks once a week, write up a report, and, if necessary, “treat only with the softest chemistry possible,” he says. He reduced sulfur applications to 10 per year. He joined with other growers to install a valley-wide computerized weather monitoring system that they use to predict mildew and insect outbreaks so that they only apply pesticides when necessary, and then only in the vineyard blocks that are affected. He plants cover crops between the rows during the winter, and uses mechanical weed control on most of his vineyards, with minor applications of Roundup in young nonbearing vineyards.

He put in 50- to 100-foot buffers between vineyards and streams lined by oaks. He moved vineyard edges to the outsides of oak-tree drip lines to protect tree roots. Unless they were a hazard, he stopped removing downed limbs and trunks, which add nutrients to the riparian ecosystem and more habitat for the 40 species of mammals that call woody brush piles “home”. Leaving the woody debris in place also corrals diseases, such as oak root fungus, that can infect vines. In the oak woodlands understory, Hudson tore out invasive plants such as Himalayan blackberry, and planted native shrubs and grasses. He fenced off cattle from streams. Because the youngest trees on his property are about 100 years old, he began collecting seeds of blue and valley oak from his ranch, then planting seedlings to ensure subsequent generations. He protects the young trees in planting tubes, and keeps cattle away from them until they’re well established.

Hudson is one of hundreds of growers who have made similar changes on their lands, and the restorations have created a healthier ecosystem. The wide strip of trees, shrubs and grasses filters water flowing from the vineyards in the winter and stabilizes stream banks. Salmon are making their way up the Napa River into its feeder streams to spawn. Some streams with water year-round have steelhead. Shrimp have returned. Hudson’s five acres of ponds attract many species of migratory ducks, which he hunts. He sees wildcats, deer, turkey, golden eagles, red-tail hawks, and owls, which move between oak woodland areas by traveling the riparian corridors.

Hudson lost about 10 percent of his vineyard-producing land to setbacks. His income is reduced, but it’s worth it, he says. He’s learned that controlling the environment is impossible, but managing it with a variety of methods works best. “Our job as farmers is to manage, with as little intervention as possible,” says Hudson.

Many of the changes put in place by Hudson and other vineyard owners is outlined in “Vineyards in an Oak Landscape”, a detailed brochure written by Dr. Adina Merenlender, a cooperative extension specialist in University of California’s Integrated Hardwood Management Program, and Julia Crawford. The publication was funded in part by a grant from the Renewable Resources Extension Act, which is administered by the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Merenlender also put together a series of workshops for vineyard owners across the state, and brought along Hudson to talk about the changes he had made on his own land.

With California’s population estimated to double in the next 50 years, “it is imperative that the state curtail the continued removal of native vegetation,” says Merenlender.

The cooperative approach has taken off, not only in Napa County, but also in Sonoma County, especially as people in the community become more concerned about the effects of vineyards on the environment. The Fish Friendly Farming program was established for grape growers in the Russian, Navarro and Gualala watersheds in 1999, and in Napa County, as the Napa Green Certification Program, in 2003. Growers participate in five workshops, receive a review and technical assistance of their farms, and develop a farm management plan. Funds are available to help implement changes, such as gully and erosion repairs, road improvements and stream restoration. Once the changes are certified -- by the National Marine Fisheries Service, the California Department of Fish and Game, and the Regional Water Quality Control Board -- a grower can display the green logo in tasting rooms and products.

Stewardship programs for watersheds have also multiplied across the state and country. Hudson has been instrumental in creating one more. Part of his property lies in the Carneros watershed, and contains land that he wants to develop into vineyards. In 1994, Hudson and 200 property owners in the watershed formed the Carneros Creek Stewardship. They obtained state funding to do an environmental assessment of the watershed. “It’s helped in trying to develop a management plan for the watershed by the stewards, who are the landowners,” says Hudson. He hopes that having an environmental assessment will streamline the permitting process for all the landowners.

Worried that additional environmental regulations can force farmers out of business, Hudson believes that communities should pay landowners to develop and maintain setbacks from waterways. “It’s hard to be green when you’re in the red,” he points out.

Although the Napa County Land Trust has a mechanism for buying easements, the organization focuses on blocks of land, rather than riparian corridors. However, in 2001, the Oak Woodlands Conservation Act was implemented to provide landowners financial incentives to protect their oak woodlands. The Wildlife Conservation Board can buy oak woodland easements and provide grants for restoration.

Merenlender points out that riparian easements may be one way to compensate landowners who retain native vegetation beyond the regulated minimum distance for the protection of waterways. “These wider riparian areas would serve as wildlife corridors through a fragmented landscape,” she notes.

Nevertheless, the state has no way to monitor how many oaks are disappearing, or, for that matter, how many are being replanted. Forests Forever, an advocacy group, says that 20,000 acres of oaks are disappearing every year, from residential, commercial and industrial development; agricultural conversion; sudden oak death disease; cattle grazing; fire suppression; and invasive grasses that choke out oak seedlings. Although some counties already require tree replacement, many more do not.

The Oak Woodlands Conservation Act, which is making its way through the California legislature, would require each county to establish an oak woodlands management plan. It would also require developers to offset any loss of oaks that they destroy. This includes restoring oak woodlands, purchasing conservation easements or contributing to the Oak Woodlands Conservation Fund. However, the requirement would not apply to farmers. It asks only their voluntary cooperation.

-- by Jane Ellen Stevens
June 2004

Webmaster Email: mmcaruso@ucanr.edu