The Napa Valley is defined by the Napa River.  Originating in the mountains of the California Coast Range that surround the head of the valley above Calistoga, the waters join together through the upper valley before slowing when they meet the tidal effect in the City of Napa.  The river, now an estuary where fresh and salt water mingle, meanders as it slows spilling outward onto vast salt marshes before joining the waters of the inland valleys near the Carquinez Straits.  The rising summer heat in the inland valleys draws ocean fog through the Golden Gate
resulting in the ideal climate in the Napa Valley for human settlement… a veritable Garden of Eden.
The First People arrived in the area over 10,000 years ago.  About 3,000 years ago when the Little Ice Age ended, other groups of Native Americans displaced by climate change moved in and settled around the new bay formed by sea level rise.  When European settlers arrived in California, Napa City was a major trading center where at least three Native American languages were spoken.  A well-established trade route extended from the Sacramento Valley to the coast through Jameson Canyon crossing the Napa River at Soscol.  Another major trade route crossed the Carquinez Straits heading north to Napa City and on to Mount Saint Helena.  These trade routes later traveled by Spanish, Mexican and American settlers now lie under some of the roads that we travel daily….like the Silverado Trail.
One of the first Europeans to visit the Napa Valley was a Spanish missionary scouting for a new mission site.  Settling for Sonoma, Father Altamura brought viticulture, sheep and cattle and slavery for Native Americans to the North Bay.  When the Mission Period ended, Mexican General Mariano G. Vallejo was dispatched to encourage settlement and establish a more democratic form of governance.  In 1844, he envisioned a great city at the end of the Napa River and later offered to build California’s first Capitol there.  His son-in-law, a Yankee lawyer, lobbied to have Mare Island selected as the first shipyard on the West Coast.  Just 30 years after General Vallejo’s favorite horse fell off a barge crossing the Carquinez Straits, his namesake city was becoming the regions’commercial and economic center.

The first railroad in California met ferries landing at Vallejo to bring wealthy patrons from San Francisco to take the waters in Calistoga once enjoyed by Native peoples for free.  Later, the railroad brought wheat from the Carneros region and other agricultural products down to Vallejo to be shipped all over the world.  The vast tidal marshes were diked in and reclaimed for agriculture or salt ponds.  

The Napa Valley climate proved perfect for premium grape growing and viticulture replaced orchards and wheat fields.  In the last 150 years, the Napa Valley has become increasingly more developed as the World’s premier wine producing region.  Attempts to control a river quickly loaded with urban and agricultural runoff has proved difficult.  In response to the flooding problem, Napa County came together to develop and implement a cutting edge plan restoring the Napa River to a geomorphically stable system by breaching the levees, widening the channel and restoring the wetlands to increase the tidal prism.
The City of Vallejo and Mare Island pursued a different agenda….heavy industry.  The shipyard grew and grew with every new global conflict to support American hegemony in the Pacific Ocean.  Thousands of workers commuted from Napa and elsewhere on electric trolleys because the roads were pretty bad back then.  As the Napa Valley grew to global prominence drawing increasing tourism, Vallejo declined as air power replaced sea power.  In 1996, the Mare Island Naval Shipyard officially closed leaving Vallejo with no economic base.  In contrast to Napa County’s more environmentally sound strategy, the City of Vallejo geared up to jumpstart Vallejo’s economy backwards to bring back dirty, polluting heavy industry… a vestige of old, outdated thinking.
In the past few years, a secret committee of elected representatives, developers and industry officials has been meeting in Vallejo to implement a program to dredge the lower Napa River to accommodate large transpacific freighters and heavy industry along the lower Napa River.  One of the historic dry docks has been reactivated to abrasively blast large, old ships releasing clouds of caustic dust over the river.  A new transpacific port and cement plant are in the final planning stages.
Planned where the historic railroad met sailing ships and ferries from San Francisco long ago, the new port would be served by trains up to 77 cars long carrying cement and “bulk goods”such as coal through the Napa Valley and Jameson Canyon several times each week.  Hundreds of big rig trucks would travel on local, county and state roads and highways each day as if traffic is not bad enough already.  Pollutants such as nitrogen/nitric oxide and soot emitted by the freighters, big rig trucks and freight trains could be carried by the prevailing winds and summer fog up into the vineyards.  If converted to smog or acid rain, these pollutants could cause eutrophication of wetlands and change soil chemistry making it difficult to grow premium grapes.  

Known hazardous materials from the cement plant could enter the river harming aquatic organisms for years to come.  The shipyard and the planned port bringing industrial waste from Asia are being used to provide justification for additional dredging to bring in even more freighters and more polluting industries.  Once, the City of Vallejo was a bustling urban center with a diverse economy and shops like the City of Paris.  As heavy industry became dominant, other economic segments withered.  

Now, like most post-industrial cities, Vallejo’s decline is having a negative impact on the region that can no longer be ignored.  If the region regained its past synergy and existing assets were leveraged appropriately, Vallejo could be the answer to many of Napa County’s problems such as increasing tourism and affordable housing.  There are other options to heavy industry in Vallejo that could support the Napa Valley rather than harm it.  

Mare Island is a National Historic Landmark equal in importance to the Presidio of San Francisco with hundreds of historic buildings suitable for adaptive reuse and many amenities such as one of the first golf courses in the region.  Vallejo is in the center of a transportation network in the strongest global tech economic powerhouse in the world according to economist Richard Florida.  There is a new San Francisco ferry terminal under construction on Mare Island with a connection to the 1868 historic railroad tracks into the Napa Valley.  Shifting some of Napa’s tourism to Mare Island and the historic railroad could relieve some of the traffic congestion, accommodate more tourists and provide an economic base that would reduce the need for City of Vallejo to pursue dirty, polluting heavy industry.

The Napa Valley is a threatened cultural landscape.  The City of Vallejo’s agenda to restore heavy industry will have transboundary effects potentially harming the Carneros AVA and the Napa River.  Developing an overarching planning authority for the entire Napa Valley to balance competing interests for the good of all is long overdue. There are several ways that might be achieved:
  • Elect representatives that support sustainable planning for the good of the entire Napa Valley
  • Incorporate the lower Napa Valley including the City of Vallejo into Napa County
  • Develop a Joint Powers Authority with land use management authority including all jurisdictions
  • And designate the Napa Valley in its entirety as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as “an outstanding example of “a landscape which illustrates significant stages in human history”based on over 10,000 years being constantly shaped by human hands.