Rivers Have Sustained Vineyards for Centuries, Now It’s Time to Return the Favor | Wine Enthusiast
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Rivers Have Sustained Vineyards for Centuries, Now It’s Time to Return the Favor

What do Bordeaux, Loire, Mosel, Rhine, Rhône, Douro, Napa, Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Tokaj and the Wachau all have in common? If you said they are all major wine regions split by rivers or laced with tributaries, pour yourself a glass of wine.

It may seem obvious, but wine wouldn’t exist without water. And rivers deliver it. For centuries that has meant soil, sediment, nutrients, warming and cooling influences and, of course, water, all traveling along riverbanks.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), today the United States alone has more than 3 million miles of rivers and streams—and many of those miles have historically made agriculture, including viticulture, possible.

But with development, climate change, pollution and a myriad of other factors, these rivers might be in major trouble.

The Napa River

Learning from Past Mistakes

Farmer Tom Gamble is heavily involved in land/resource preservation in Napa Valley on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019, in Napa, Calif.
The Napa River winds through Gamble Family Vineyards / Image Courtesy of Paul Kuroda

“The Napa River is the lifeblood of the Napa Valley,” says Will Drayton, director of technical viticulture, sustainability and research at Treasury Americas, a division of Treasury Wine Estates.

Running around 50 miles from Mt. St. Helena in the north and spilling into the San Pablo Bay, the Napa River is home to plants, endangered critters and some of the most valuable acreage of grapevines in the country.

Since the first European colonists arrived in Napa in 1823, the river has faced a series of degradations.

For instance, the beavers, whose dams create wetlands near the riverbanks, which help regulate flooding, had their populations decimated by hunters in the 1840s. Dams, such as the York Dam, were constructed in the 1800s and onward to mitigate flooding. However, the manmade versions didn’t do such a great job: There were a recorded 21 major floods from 1862 onward.

When it comes to the Napa River, “I’ve seen three phases in my lifetime,” says Tom Gamble, proprietor of Gamble Family Vineyards, who grew up along its banks and is a major proponent of the Napa River Restoration Project.

As a child in the 1960s, Gamble saw what he calls the “first phase,” when the river was radically altered “the old-fashioned way” by the United States Army Corps of Engineers as Napa entered an era of unbridled development.

Trees were burned to the ground, offshoot streams and tributaries were filled in and large levees to “protect” properties from flooding were built. “I remember the black smoke in the heat of the fires and the smell and the noise of all these giant pieces of equipment. That’s the way we were managing the river,” he says.

“There has always been tension between the Napa River and people who live and work next to it,” says Drayton. “On one hand, the river provides the water to sustain agriculture and the way of life, and on the other, there [have been] devastating floods and damage that have happened regularly throughout modern history.”

Farmer Tom Gamble is heavily involved in land/resource preservation in Napa Valley on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019, in Napa, Calif.
Tom Gamble of Gamble Family Vineyards / Image Courtesy of Paul Kuroda

With every effort to control the river, the floods worsened.

“Farms along the river would build levees to reduce the immediate flood risk on their side of the river, but that just pushes the water to the other bank during the next storm, forcing their neighbor to build up,” says Drayton. “As the levees grew higher, they constrained the river’s flow, causing significant erosion and making future breaks even more devastating.”

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), between 1961 and 1997 there were a total of 19 floods that led to deaths and evacuations and equaled $542 million in damages.

With the absence of native vegetation, the riverbanks became host to invasive plants, such as Himalayan blackberry and periwinkle, which harbor pests like Pierce’s disease that kill grapevines. “There’s always going to be Pierce’s disease,” says Gamble, “but instead of being just an incidental problem it was a contagion.”

In 1962, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson was published and helped kickstart the environmental movement in the U.S. In 1968, Napa established the Agriculture Preserve, further pushing the environmental movement in the area. But as the movement took hold in the late ’70s, Napa entered what Gamble calls the second or “no-touch” phase of the river. The general consensus at the time was, if the river was finally left alone, it would restore itself back to its natural state.

So, it sat—for nearly 20 years, according to Gamble, its banks overrun with invasive species and missing many of the creatures—both land and aquatic—it had once supported.

“Nature was not healing itself. It was declining even further,” says Gamble. By the late ’90s Gamble and a coalition of vintners decided to take action. “It took a lot of quiet conversation outside of the media glare,” he says.

But it worked. In 1998, Napa County Measure A was passed, creating the Napa Flood Protection and Watershed Improvement Expenditure Plan, which includes a local half-cent sales tax that goes toward restoring the river as well as flood management.

Invasive species were ripped out and replaced with native plants like oaks and willow trees. Levees were removed, which allowed for more gentle flooding—rather than just allowing water pressure to build, which had caused such catastrophic flooding.

Farmer Tom Gamble is heavily involved in land/resource preservation in Napa Valley on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019, in Napa, Calif.
Continuing the Napa River eestoration efforts / Image Courtesy of Paul Kuroda

The result? “The flooding is less severe, and the river can do what it’s meant to: deposit gravel from the hills, shade the river with its trees, sequester carbon and become a biodiversity node again,” says Drayton.

Along with the decrease in flooding, vintners saw vineyard diseases decrease rapidly. “I think that the immediate reduction in Pierce’s disease is huge because that has a direct economic impact,” says Gamble. Steelhead and other species that hadn’t been seen in the river for decades have also slowly began to reemerge.

One unintended consequence Gamble doesn’t seem to mind so much: The river has become home to the beavers once again—who have some pretty expensive taste in building materials and have taken to adorning their dams with his Oakville Cabernet vines.

The Colorado River

A Story of Outdated Legislation

Whitewater Hill Vineyard
A look at Whitewater Hill Vineyards, which depends on the Colorado River / Image courtesy of Whitewater Hill Vineyard

“This year, I can walk across the Colorado River in my irrigation boots. That shouldn’t happen,” says Neil Guard, vineyard manager at Avant Vineyards, which is located in Colorado’s Grand Valley AVA and depends on the Colorado River for irrigation.

Unfortunately, the dwindling supply of water is not at all surprising.

“The Colorado River is physically 19% smaller than it was just 20 years ago. And by 2050, it could be 30% smaller [than it is now],” says Sinjin Eberle, communications director and executive producer at American Rivers, citing a scientific study done in 2017.

According to the organization, the Colorado River “provides drinking water for 40 million people, irrigates 5 million acres of farm and ranch land and supports a $1.4 trillion economy.” And this water isn’t just going to the state of Colorado. It’s transported to New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Arizona, California, Nevada and Mexico. “No other river has to take that kind of pressure from that much population,” says Eberle.

Whitewater Hill Vineyard
The Colorado River supports a $1.4 Trillion economy / Image Courtesy of Whitewater Hill Vineyard

Whitewater Hill Vineyards also depends on the Colorado to irrigate their vines. “We have converted to micro-sprinkler irrigation,” says Melanie Wick, co-owner of Whitewater Hill Vineyards. “So that allows us to use less water.”

Being so close to the headwaters of the river, grape growers in the Grand Valley AVA may not feel the impacts of the Colorado River’s decreased size yet. But if legislation doesn’t change, this could be a different story.

“In the Colorado basin, about 80% of the water used is used by agriculture,” says Eberle. “And often, much of that water is returned to the river. A farmer takes a bunch of water out, runs the water through fields, and at the bottom of the fields it flows back into the river. That’s called return flow. That’s how it works for the majority of the basin. But when you take water out of the river, and you move it to another place like Denver, then that water never returns to the river.”

Why is the Colorado’s water in such high demand? Because of the outdated 1922 Colorado River Allocation Act, which was done after looking at river levels based on some of the wettest years in our recent history.

overhead shot of a river in wine country
The Colorado River depends on snowpack from the mountains. / Image courtesy of Whitewater Hill Vineyard

“So, they over-allocated what is in the Colorado River,” says Guard. “[You] can’t really give away more than you have.”

There’s also been less snow, meaning less snowpack in the mountains. “A way to think about our reservoir in the West is as this massive snowpack in the Rocky Mountains that holds all of our water through the winter and slowly releases it over the course of the growing season,” says Deborah Kennard, Ph.D., professor of environmental science and technology at Colorado Mesa University. “It’s the perfect reservoir of freshwater.”

Generally, the Colorado River gets 85% of water from snowpack.

Whitewater Hill Vineyard
The Colorado River supports New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Arizona, California, Nevada and Mexico / Image Courtesy of Whitewater Hill Vineyard

“So, in years of low snowpack, there’s less water in the river. Summer rains don’t contribute much since storms are localized,” says Kennard.

Some vineyards are also contending with massive sediment runoff into the rivers due to the hotter, more intense wildfires the West is experiencing. “Debris that’s in that water overwhelms your irrigation pond,” says Bob Witham, co-owner of Two Rivers Winery and Chateau.

“Now you have to hire somebody to come in with a tractor with a blade or with a bucket and haul it away. So, it’s really an expense issue. And then it can be overwhelming to your filtration system.”

The Snake River

Water Rights and the Whole Big Dam Question

SnakeRiver AVA Parma Ridge Winery near Parma
Idaho is and has been in an extended drought / Image Courtesy of Visit Idaho

“The wine industry would not exist without the river,” says James Holesinsky, owner of Holesinsky Vineyard and Winery, on the Snake River in Idaho. The Snake River originates in Wyoming—near the Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks—then flows through Idaho and ultimately makes its way through Oregon and Washington into the Columbia River.

Like the Colorado, the Snake faces increased allocated water needs. But its resources are running dry—literally, as the western U.S. is in an extended drought.

“When there are droughts, it can get contentious in terms of water rights, and how water is allocated,” says Josh Johnson, senior conservation associate of the Idaho Conservation League.

Vineyard at Parma Ridge Winery…you can kind of see the river off to the distance to the left of the clump of trees, and on the right – Credit Visit Idaho
Without the river agriculture wouldn’t exist Image Courtesy of Kim Fetrow / Visit Idaho

“Long-term or severe droughts could affect our ability to draw water and irrigate,” says Jake Cragin, farmer at Winemakers LLC. “I haven’t run into that situation in all my years of farming; not to say it can’t happen. Idaho as well as, heck, the whole West has been in long-term drought.”

The system of water rights in Idaho is complex. But, for many farmers, it boils down to first come, first served for those with “senior rights” and “junior rights.” Those with senior rights get their water first and their full allocated amount. Those with junior water rights get theirs second, meaning if there is ever a severe enough drought, they may not get their water at all.

There are also a series of dams along the Snake River, which are controversial. On one hand, they provide clean, cheap energy and allow vineyards to pull adequate water for irrigation. But they’ve also decimated the salmon population, and according to Johnson, increase algae blooms, which can make the water toxic for drinking.

It All Flows Downstream

Colterris Winery, a vineyard and winery in Colorado's Western Slope, near the Colorado River.
Image Courtesy of Redux

Along with some of the world’s greatest wine regions, many cities were built on riverways, so the issues go far beyond growing grapes. “More than two-thirds of the people in the United States get their drinking water from rivers,” says American Rivers’ Eberle.

Nature’s entire house of cards is built on them. They support countless plants, animals and other forms of wildlife.

“Rivers are more than just places to get water,” says Eberle. “They are ways that connect all of us, all the time.”

This article originally appeared in the February/March 2023 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!