By Christine Souza, Assistant Editor, Ag Alert
Reprinted with Permission from the California Farm Bureau Federation
A new statewide order affecting how wineries dispose of water could undermine existing regional solutions, winery owners and their advocates say, and would impose new costs as the wine business struggles with tasting room closures and other measures intended to assure employee safety.
Wine and farm organizations submitted comments to the State Water Resources Control Board last week, as it considers the statewide regulation.
Vintner Zac Robinson of Husch Vineyards in Mendocino County said he fears the draft permit will be adopted with little concern for wineries that have been economically devastated during the pandemic.
“How is the industry able to give any attention to this regulation when our restaurant sales are zero, we can’t open our tasting rooms, supply chains are broken, employees are sick or scared, and we are struggling with cash flow?” Robinson said. “Further, regulators can’t even get into the field to see winery wastewater systems because of the COVID risk, so they can’t educate themselves.”
The state water board is working on developing a statewide winery general order that includes a permitting process for water discharge. More than 2,000 California wineries that apply winery process water to land for irrigation and soil amendment uses would be affected by the new order.
The general order classifies wineries into regulatory tiers based on the total volume of processed water discharged annually prior to treatment, differentiating the application requirements, fees and monitoring and reporting requirements.
California Farm Bureau Federation Director of Water Resources Danny Merkley said CFBF has been working with the Wine Institute, county Farm Bureaus, the California Association of Winegrape Growers, Family Winemakers of California and others to advocate for a regulation that works for winery operators and water quality.
“Years of work and cooperation by (regional) water boards and farmers have gone into existing programs, so we believe a new statewide winery order must acknowledge this and not reinvent the wheel,” Merkley said. “The key to the state water board developing a winery discharge permit that will work is learning from other water board programs and understanding how they work to protect water quality and can be implemented by farmers. Otherwise, we end up with a regulation that’s duplicative, expensive and does little to protect water quality.”
In comments submitted to the state board, the Wine Institute, CFBF and other organizations called for developing a winery order that “protects water quality, while balancing economic impacts,” and also asked that the process not be rushed, after having only 30 days to review and comment on the draft document.
Noelle Cremers, director of environmental and regulatory affairs for the Wine Institute, which represents California wineries, noted wineries would apply water onto lands already covered by an irrigated lands regulatory program, and said winery representatives asked water board staff that they coordinate, “so if land is already subject to an ILRP, that this program fits with that and doesn’t have conflicting or duplicative requirements.”
Vintner Robinson said he worries the new regulations would override site-specific solutions at his winery, after much investment in engineering and environmental studies.
His winery’s two facilities, each with newly engineered and permitted pressure distribution leach fields, would not be recognized by the state board under the permit, he said, as it attempts to ban all leach fields for facilities of his size.
“I assume they are simply unaware of the technology, because they haven’t bothered to visit any small or medium-sized facilities,” Robinson said.
Cremers said winery groups are not advocating to do away with the permit altogether.
“If wineries are contributing to groundwater degradation, it is appropriate that they be asked to change practices to reduce that impact and clean up the water,” she said. “We need to have a permit that is focused on addressing where there’s risk.”
Stuart Spencer, executive director of the Lodi Winegrape Commission, which represents about 85 wineries, said winery wastewater issues “have always been very onerous.”
“Regardless of COVID, we should really be making sure that our regulatory actions have actual environmental benefit that is balanced by the cost to enact them,” he said.
Spencer pointed out that many small and mid-sized wineries are “mom and pop” operations that do most mitigation work themselves, so “this just adds another level of compliance that comes with steep fees.”
“I think the wine and grape industry has been very progressive in addressing environmental impacts in their operations over the years, and they continue to progress significantly,” he said. “A lot of it is being done voluntarily, and it should be looked at as a positive.”
During a July workshop on the draft order, Cremers told state water board staff they likely wouldn’t hear from small wineries that have been economically impacted by the pandemic.
On July 13, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the statewide closure of winery tasting rooms for indoor operations, directing all winery tasting rooms to move operations outdoors. The order also requires restaurants and all other alcoholic beverage licensees to serve a meal in order to serve alcohol for onsite consumption.