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Napa wineries brace for first statewide rules for winery wastewater
Wine Industry

Napa wineries brace for first statewide rules for winery wastewater

From the Napa Valley Wine Insider Digest: Jan. 30, 2021 series
  • Updated
Crush 2017

A bin of pinot noir grapes goes into the crusher during crush 2017. New winery wastewater regulations, aimed at monitoring how waste water from wine production might impact ground water quality, were implemented at the state level last week. Wineries will have between three and five years to comply with the new regulations, which the Napa Valley Vintners say pose a serious threat to the financial viability of small wineries in the area.

Hundreds of California wineries will for the first time be governed by statewide wastewater processing rules, a change from the long-held, regional approach that could increase production costs for wineries and protections for waterways while providing consistency for vintners across the state.

The move toward a statewide regulatory framework, a five-year effort championed by industry leaders, was finalized this week by the State Water Resources Control Board, which approved an order setting up guidelines for wastewater processing at most of the more than 3,600 bonded wineries in the state.

The new order promises to bring at least 1,500 of those wineries into a regulatory framework for wastewater disposal for the first time, leading to extra compliance costs. But it also provides flexibility for how, and when, those wineries will be subject to rules meant to safeguard waterways and groundwater from harmful contaminants, including excess nitrogen, salinity and other compounds that deplete oxygen levels.

“I think it was the perfect example of a compromise,” said Don McEnhill, head of the Sonoma County-based group Russian Riverkeeper.

The order ratchets up reporting requirements and caps the amount of processed water wineries can dispose of through land application and subsurface disposal. It specifies requirements for water treatment systems and ponds, and requires extensive groundwater monitoring for the state’s largest wineries.

The regulations will impact “a large number of wineries” in Napa County, according to Napa Valley Vintners Associate Director of Industry Relations and Regulatory Affairs Michelle Novi. The majority of Sonoma County’s roughly 500 wineries will fall under the new rules, according to Rose Jimenez, spokeswoman for Sonoma County Vintners, the local industry’s primary trade group.

“This is going to be incredibly costly, incredibly burdensome, and, for our vintners, largely unnecessary,” NVV’s Novi said in an interview Monday. Napa Valley’s wineries have a long history of serving as stewards for the land, she said, a commitment that “includes making sure our water quality is in no way degraded” by their production work.

“It’s just frustrating, because this order is in a lot of ways one size fits all — it doesn’t take into account regional differences in operations,” Novi added.

Mike Martini, a Sebastopol vintner who heads up an alliance of 20 family wineries, said he foresees some new impositions for local winemakers.

“As a small Sonoma County winery, I can tell you that if they proceed in the way that they’re going, the difference for my winery is going to be somewhere in the neighborhood of $500,000,” said Martini, adding the number was an early, rough estimate.

Martini said more than 90% of Sonoma County wine grape growers have committed to sustainable farming practices, and most winemakers, he said, have similar commitments.

Ashley Egelhoff, assistant winemaker at Honig Vineyard and Winery in Rutherford and a member of the Wine Institute’s environmental committee, said the rules released last week had been improved from an initial draft — which Egelhoff called “daunting” — that she’d originally seen around spring of 2019.

“In a lot of ways, the final draft was better than the original, and there were a lot of improvements that were made,” she said. But the new regulations will still be highly costly to eligible wineries, according to Egelhoff, who said the cost of complying with the order for the average Napa Valley winery would include a one-time enrollment fee plus the continual cost of an engineering consultant to assess wastewater systems and then draw and test samples over time.

California winemakers generate $71 billion for the state economy. In Sonoma County, where the wine grape crop is valued at $778 million, the economic impact of the industry is estimated at $12.4 billion, accounting for one out of every four jobs, according to Sonoma County Vintners.

State water regulators have provided a three-year window for permitting and another five years for wineries to come into compliance with the order, something industry officials praised.

As the new state rule takes effect, just 589 of the state’s 3,612 bonded wineries have permits or waivers to dispose of winery wastewater. The order groups wineries into four tiers based on size, exempting the roughly 1,500 in the smallest tier — wineries that produce less than 10,000 gallons of processed water per year.

Environmental groups and industry leaders lobbied heavily in the months leading up to this week’s vote.

Representatives from Jackson Family Wines spoke with a state water board member Jan. 4, according to state disclosures. The same day, state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, sent a letter seeking balance in the coming order.

“I believe the requirements should be tailored to maintain the environmental integrity while reducing unnecessary costs on California’s wineries,” Dodd wrote.

Dodd cautioned that of the order could have more severe impacts on smaller wineries, and he raised concerns about the cost for wineries to comply with the requirements.

“As you know, wineries have faced unprecedented challenges this year between shutdowns of tasting rooms to reduce the spread of COVID-19 as well as the numerous wildfires that impacted grape harvests. It is estimated that California’s wineries, are expected to see losses of $3.7 billion from this year’s fires and an additional $4.2 billion in losses from the pandemic.”

Honig’s Egelhoff said she was concerned Napa’s wineries — especially smaller producers — would be taken aback at the stringency of the new regulations.

“I think the specifics are going to be surprising to them. And there is time to comply, but I don’t know that with the amount of time needed to recover from both COVID and the fires — plus the Napa County permitting process — that it’s as generous an amount of time as the water board thinks it is,” Egelhoff said.

The California Coastkeeper Alliance, a statewide environmental coalition that includes Russian Riverkeeper among its members, had meetings with state water board members as recently as Jan. 7 seeking last-minute changes.

In a news release sent Thursday, the group shared mixed reviews of the new order, which it said marked an important step toward filling regulatory gaps. But the group said the new rules don’t go far enough to protect waterways, citing a dearth of groundwater monitoring requirements among smaller wineries and a lack of stringent standards to protect from spills.

Sonoma County saw one of the largest local wine spills on record last January, when a 100,000-gallon tank at Rodney Strong Vineyards in Healdsburg failed and spilled nearly all of its cabernet sauvignon, according to state officials, into nearby Reiman Creek and eventually into the Russian River.

Winery officials told state investigators they recovered as much as half of the wine before it made it to the river.

“Every winery should be required to submit effective spill prevention and containment plans to protect our waterways,” Russian Riverkeeper policy analyst Jaime Neary said in the release. “Last year, we had a 97,000-gallon cabernet spill that turned the river red. Accidents do happen, and this is not something we want to see happen again in our watershed, or anywhere in California.”

Register reporter Sarah Klearman contributed to this article.


Geoffrey Curley films the process of stacking wine bottles in caves at Schramsberg Vineyards. 


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