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American Society of Landscape Architects


January 2005 Issue

A River Lives Through It
Napa, California, shows what can happen when politicians, environmentalists, and the land itself give a river room to move.

By Lisa Owens Viani

Photo By Samanda Dorger

From a bird's-eye view, downtown Napa, California, on February 17, 1986, was a flooded Monopoly board—an inland sea dotted with half-submerged buildings, the tips of bridges, and floating cars. The resemblance wasn't new—since the 1860s, the city had experienced more than 20 major floods that had inundated the town and caused over half a billion dollars of damage. Like so many other cities, Napa had been built in a floodplain without regard for the will of the river that ran through it. The idea of con- trolling the river had been discussed since the 1940s, yet the citizens of Napa couldn't bring themselves to support the Army Corps of Engineers' various plans to straitjacket the river in concrete and sheet pile. To many Napa residents, the river was the town's lifeblood and its most unique feature. As Friends of the Napa River member and biologist Jim Hench recalls, "The Army Corps plan would have killed the river, sucked the life out of it." In 1975, the Army Corps came forward with a new plan. But in 1976 and 1977, voters rejected the proposal, failing to come up with the needed local cost share, and the project was shelved. Then came the 1986 flood, a one-in-50-year event, and, in desperation, the Napa County Flood Control District asked the Corps to revive its plan. Nine years later, the Corps came back, proposing to widen, deepen, and wall in the river. Alarmed, Moira Johnston Block, an author who lived on the river, Hench, and a few other river lovers decided to organize. Johnston Block's living room became command central, and the group Friends of the Napa River was born.

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