Ag groups raise issues; ‘policy is jumping ahead of science’

[caption id="attachment_35498" align="alignright" width="317" caption="Jim Verhey, Sandy Elles"][/caption]

NAPA COUNTY -- As a county government plan takes shape to streamline evaluation of development projects in unincorporated areas under state environmental protection law, the draft document has come under fire from both sides for lack of clarity and supporting data.

Environmental-protection groups and agriculture groups have taken issue with the methods and greenhouse gas emissions targets in the first draft of the Napa County Climate Action Plan, released around the beginning of this year.

Both sides said the draft climate plan didn't have enough explanation for the assumptions used, conclusions reached and solutions presented.

Many local governments are trying to address the goals of Assembly Bill 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, and reduce community-wide greenhouse gas emissions while providing a clear and predictable set of standards for project applicants, according to county planning director Hillary Gitelman. She called that "good governance."

"Here in Napa County, the issues are complex, because there is an interplay between changes in land cover and changes in carbon sequestration," Ms. Gitelman said. "We also have an industry -- agriculture -- that is actively developing and implementing 'best practices' to address the issue, but so far we have no ability to quantify the resulting emission reductions."

On June 9, she and Environmental Management Department Director Steven Lederer sent a letter to stakeholders that the revision to the plan would be postponed until late July or early August to make the goals and methodology of the document "more understandable." Public hearings of the revision would be set at that time.

The Napa County Climate Action Plan tallies greenhouse gas emissions from all sources in unincorporated areas as of 2005 and proposes measures to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, consistent with AB 32.

Though climate action plans aren't required under the state law, having a "qualified" plan would allow development projects consistent with it to be deemed to not result in "significant" greenhouse gas emissions under the new climate change element of the California Environmental Quality Act, according to policy statements by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

Napa County included an action item to create a climate action plan in the 2008 update to the General Plan central county policy document.

In public-hearing and written comments submitted by the extended April 4 comment deadline, groups on one side said projections for the number of acres of forest that would be converted to vines and other uses is vastly underestimated.

A local Sierra Club group called for additional environmental analysis of vineyard and other development on loss of trees to supplement the environmental report for the 2008 update to the county General Plan, which touched on woodland conversion.

"The feasibility of avoiding the loss of valuable carbon stores like oak woodlands and coniferous forests needs to be explored in the supplement," wrote Bill Yeates, a Sacramento attorney representing the Napa Group of the Redwood Empire Chapter. Measures for avoiding that loss could be "feasible" preservation or restoration efforts at the project site or elsewhere, he wrote.

Assembly Bill 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, called for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the state to 1990 levels by 2020. A California Air Resources Board policy-making document focused on conversion of woodlands to other crops or uses, and any changes in the amount of carbon could be "sequestered" in the plants and soil.

Agriculture groups -- Napa Valley Vintners, Napa County Farm Bureau and Napa Valley Grapegrowers -- generally commented on the county climate plan that the goal of emissions reduction is good but the targets related to vineyard development go too far and don't account for the sustainability movement in modern agriculture.

"If the climate action plan improves the environment in Napa Valley by providing regulations and programs like this, the grapegrowers are for them, as long as 'good governance' is based on good science and reasonable benefits," said Jim Verhey, managing director of major North Coast vineyard operator Silverado WineGrowers and chairman of the Napa Valley Grape Growers Issues Committee.

Concerns the group has about the plan generally are inclusion of research on other crops in other regions, emissions mitigation measures don't involve existing vines, estimates of mass conversion of forests in the county doesn't fit with recent trends in development that avoid clearing trees, viticulture has evolved in the past two decades to use less water, more annual cover crops, less tillage and fewer pesticides, and several research projects on carbon sequestration related to vineyards will fill big gaps in knowledge in the next few years.

In its submitted comments, aided by crop researchers from University of California campuses in Berkeley and Davis, the farm bureau presented a list of nine research projects that will provide more in-depth data in the on carbon sequestration related to vineyards and viticultural methods used nowadays. Some are under way in Napa Valley and the North Coast now, but conclusions are still at least a couple of years away, according to Executive Director Sandy Elles.

"Policy is jumping ahead of science," she said. "We understand the need for ballpark numbers, but specific numbers that drive costly mitigation for project submissions is something else."

For more information on Napa County's forthcoming Climate Action Plan and comments submitted about the first draft, visit www.countyofnapa.org/CAP.