One of the things I love about the First District is the diversity of landscape, people, and issues. While some elements are shared, each part of the district has distinct elements. Southern Sonoma Valley is replete with grass-covered hills overlooking wetlands that move with the tides of the bay, generations of farming families, and provides the gateway to the Valley.
It is here that Wingo sits, a largely abandoned ghost town that once welcomed guests by boat to the valley, including luminaries such as Jack London. I was fortunate to tour Wingo a couple of years ago and met Rich Kiser on the road entering his hay farm that borders Hwy 37 to the south and Hwy 121 to the west. Rich is a valley treasure and though now in his 90s, he has the memory of an elephant and is easily able to recall decades of history.
South Valley is where California Fish and Wildlife has an outpost where they tend to the reclaimed wetlands that reach deep into the Schellville corridor of 12/121 and meet with Sonoma Creek. I’ve been working with state and local agencies on repairing and reopening Millerick Road and I’m happy to report, we are making headway on a decade long issue.
For many years, South Valley was referred to solely as “Schellville” after Theodore L Schelle, a settler who came here in 1860 and purchased 1,000 acres of land. In 1879, the Sonoma Valley Railroad built a station and named it after him. Southern Pacific Railroad soon followed and Schellville became a town of its own, with a newspaper, post office and commercial development. Around 1900, nature reclaimed the area when Sonoma Creek filled with mud, preventing larger ships from moving through the area.
Schellville, like the entire valley, was once navigated by rail, until cars were introduced and demand for trains slowed considerably. By the mid 20th century, passenger rail service was discontinued, though freight lines continued to use the rails. Today, we are witnessing a resurgence of freight through the area. This section is known as the Lombard line. While Sonoma Marin Area Rapid Transit (SMART) owns the tracks, rights are owned by North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA), which contracted in 2016 with Northwestern Pacific Railroad (NWPco) leased out the freight passage for 30 years.
Our relationship with the railroads is complicated. They transported visitors and future residents to the Valley and carried fruit, produce, cobbles and timber to San Francisco. They promoted land for sale and settlement, and often our disconnected road system can be traced to the location of tracks up the Valley.
Recently we have seen long lines of tanker cars snaking through the landscape in the Valley, in the fall holding millions of gallons of Liquid Petroleum Gas. Sonomans are rightfully alarmed and have questioned this arrangement since last summer when they first appeared. We collectively appreciate the existence of rail in the valley and the importance of rail to the development of the Valley and look forward to SMART extending eastward to connect the Valley with Napa and beyond.
But like you, I am very disheartened by Northwest Pacific Railroad Company to transport and store the empty tanker cars and cars loaded with LPG from Valero and Tesoro in our beautiful landscape in this manner. Additionally, I am deeply concerned about safety issues and environmental impact.
As I have written before, the regulation of railroads rests in the purview of five members of the Surface Transportation Board appointed by the Congress and President of the United States. Rail operators cannot refuse to transport certain kinds of products. They are required to transport the cars. But the distinction between transportation and storage of loaded and empty tanker cars appears to be murky. And the recent operating agreement between SMART and NWPco. seems to limit storage along the central corridor in Sonoma and Marin, at the apparent expense of Sonoma and Napa Valleys.
One of my concerns is environmental. Although many of the tankers are built to exacting standards, I am deeply concerned about the possibility of an industrial accident or chemical leak into fragile wetlands and the impact on nearby residents and farmlands. As we recently witnessed, we cannot accurately predict weather patterns and this winter brought a deluge of rain that closed Hwy 37 for several weeks, and NWP Co. moved the cars in the rainy season to avoid the flooding at Schellville.
Another impact of the storage of the tanker cars in Sonoma Valley is that the image of the tankers against the scenic backdrop of the mountains and valley may potentially affect our tourism-based economy. The zipcode of 95476 contributed $266 million in 2016, with 1 percent of this funding SMART.
CalTrans performed admirably to reopen Highway 37, after 27 days of closure, but the issue remains that this heavily traveled highway and train tracks owned by SMART are destined to be reclaimed by nature – much like the Sonoma Creek takeover 100 years ago. Since I assumed the office of Supervisor in 2013, I have been part of a State Route 37 Policy Committee working to research remedies and to address the impact of bay level rise and increased traffic on the highway.