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It’s a problem facing many towns and counties throughout the North Bay: what to do with high-density wastewater created by food and beverage producers?

In Napa County — with hundreds of wineries producing millions of gallons of sludgy water that is too thin to be processed with fat and grease waste and too dense to be sent down the drain without exorbitant fees — it’s a problems that has led to more than 12,000 truckloads of wastewater being driven to Oakland’s sewage treatment plant each year.

Because the trucks exit and enter the county through American Canyon, the added traffic has frustrated city officials and led some, like Vice Mayor Belia Ramos Bennett, to call for better alternatives.

According to Napa Sanitation District General Manager Tim Healy, the district has been aware of the issue for some time, but has yet to find a workable solution.

“We’re exploring different options, whether it’s a winery waste receiving station at the plant or allowing wine waste into our (polishing) ponds at certain times of the year,” he said. “But at this point, we just can’t do it.”

North Bay facilities can’t compete with Oakland plant

Napa certainly isn’t alone in this dilemma. Wastewater treatment plants in cities with smaller populations that serve a large number of food and beverage producers are generally not designed to take the volume or density of wastewater generated by large-scale commercial producers.

To be clear, the wastewater generated by wineries, breweries and creameries typically isn’t contaminated with toxins, officials said. Instead, it’s mostly created when these businesses use water to clean grapes, brew beer, wash receptacles and create dairy products. Often, it’s like the water generated from doing one’s dishes, but on a vastly larger and denser scale, making it highly expensive and difficult for sewer plants to treat.

Because of the added expense, treatment plants often don’t accept such waste unless it has been pre-treated by the producer. This is a costly endeavor that requires building a separate facility, like the one Treasury Wine Estates built last year at their south Napa plant, for $1.2 million.

Or, much like Napa Sanitation, plants can accept the wastewater for extremely high fees, making it cheaper for producers to collect their wastewater and send it in trucks to a different plant. For the North Bay, East Bay Municipal Utility District’s (MUD) Oakland facility is the plant of choice.

This massive plant, serving 650,000 residential customers and 88-square miles of city, was built with extra capacity and the ability to create energy. This means that East Bay MUD is happy to take untreated high-density wastewater for a very low cost.

Wineries, breweries and food producers throughout the North Bay truck wastewater to Oakland. In Napa County, thousands of trucks schlep the 40-some miles to Oakland each year, carrying more than 74 million gallons of wastewater out of the county.

For officials in American Canyon, it has become a burden. “Here we are, a premiere wine destination of the world and, whether it is because of economics or technology, we can’t even deal with our own waste — a byproduct of our advertised industry,” said American Canyon’s Ramos Bennett.

“While we are currently not serving the sewer needs of all industries, that doesn’t mean we can’t look at a collective solution going forward to find the best possible practice — which I have to believe, isn’t sending 12,000 trucks through American Canyon annually.”

Ramos Bennett not only criticized the environmental harm of the additional trucks driving up and down the the city’s highway corridor, but also pointed to the traffic congestion and the difficulties facing businesses who want to set up shop in the area.

“American Canyon has a healthy food and beverage sector and an economic charge to increase these types of businesses,” she said. “But it has become prohibitively expensive for these businesses to treat their high-density waste. We need to take a wholesale look at this as a county and figure out how we are going to deal with it moving forward, from a customer service, economic development and environmental perspective.”

Napa slower to respond than nearby cities

As other places face this same issue, cities like Santa Rosa, Petaluma and Healdsburg in Sonoma County are actively seeking ways to update their facilities. Earlier this year, Santa Rosa commissioned a $150,000 study aimed at finding ways to retrofit the Laguna Wastewater Treatment Plant to accept such high-density waste.

Last year, Petaluma’s City Council learned that Lagunitas Brewing Company, a city darling, was trucking most of its waste to East Bay MUD, and that several other food and beverage producers were considering leaving the city for locations with cheaper wastewater options. Officials promptly began studying the plant to find a solution.

Healdsburg – which has its own prominent, albeit, much smaller, wine industry – upgraded its plant in 2009 to accommodate high-density wastewater producers. As a result, most wineries in town discharge directly to the local treatment plant, which, in turn, recycles the wastewater and uses it to irrigate vineyards.

“The system isn’t perfect,” said Ryan Kirchner, Healdsburg’s public works operations and utilities superintendent. “We do have some weaknesses, especially in the higher-density waste producers. But nobody is complaining in Healdsburg. If anything, they are really supportive.”

Healdsburg’s plant operates on a three-tier system that charges users fees based on the strength and density of their waste. But unlike Napa’s system, which has no fee cap, Healdsburg has a maximum price for users, avoiding exorbitantly high costs for businesses, Kirchner said.

Though he admitted the city is thinking of changing its system, Kirchner pointed out that almost no Healdsburg wineries truck their waste elsewhere. “It’s really a balancing act,” he said. “How do we permit the wineries, charge them correctly and still capture and recover the costs that these industries represent to the plant? It’s really about working together.”

Napa Sanitation, meanwhile, has made little headway in crafting a solution. “This is not a new problem,” Ramos Bennett said. “A 2009 study outlined the issues facing these industries in Napa County. Now is the time to have a meaningful discussion, at a multi-jurisdictional level, about solutions — with involvement from everyone who is affected in the county.”

The study Ramos Bennett referred to is the Napa Sanitation District’s October 2009 Winery Waste Management technical memorandum. The study showed that waste hauled to out-of-county treatment facilities should be addressed. It outlined several possible solutions to the trucking dilemma facing most wineries. But to date, none of the solutions have been implemented.

“It has taken time, as the solutions are expensive,” said Napa Mayor Jill Techel, who sits on the sanitation district’s board of directors. “We need to keep looking for new technology that will be more affordable.”

What are Napa’s options?

Part of the problem is cost. According to Healy, the district could simply build a second anaerobic digester, which would increase the plant’s capacity and lower the strain on the plant’s operations. Doing so could possibly lower the cost for local businesses to discharge waste to the plant.

But, Healy pointed out that building new digesters is pricey. “We build capacity as needed,” he said. “It just takes money to build more. If these wineries want to discharge, or food producers want to come here, we’re going to have to add more capacity. But if they take up all the added capacity, we’ll have to add more to support the residential side.”

A new digester at the plant could cost upwards of $15 million, Healy said. “Who should pay for that? Businesses? Ratepayers? That’s the real issue,” he said.

Cost remains a very real problem for Napa Sanitation. According to its 2013-2014 budget, the district expects to be operating at a deficit by fiscal year 2016-2017. This does not include a cash reserve fund valued at about $8 million. Healy said the district is actively exploring different ways to avoid this, including delaying or eliminating capital improvement projects.

“The board will address (this) at a later date, depending on how development occurs within the community over the next couple years,” he said.

But even if the district had the money to add extra capacity, there is no guarantee that the plant could accept all the winery waste currently being trucked to Oakland, Healy added.

Techel said Friday that the district gives businesses all the data they need to make a choice on where they want to dispose their wastewater. She pointed out that much of the problem stems from the new winery development in the south county’s industrial parks. In recent years, the county has pushed much of the new winery business into southern business parks. Unlike the older wineries Upvalley, with acres of land available to set up polishing ponds at a lower cost that handle high density wastewater, these south county wineries do not have the space.

Rex Stults, government relations director for the Napa Valley Vintners, said that by pushing wineries south without offering a cost-effective and workable wastewater disposal, the county is sending mixed messages. “The county wants it in the south, but they don’t have the infrastructure to handle it,” he said. “The directives are somewhat conflicting.”

Stults said that the county’s wineries understand the costs associated with building more space at the plant to accommodate their industry. “Our members are willing to pay their fair share,” he said. “They just don’t want it to be cost-prohibitive. So if there is a way to fairly and appropriately divvy up the costs, that’s what they want.”

Stults added that while the expense of doing business here isn’t a deterrent to new wineries coming to the area – because of the region’s cachet – he stressed that local vintners don’t want to fall behind the technology and environmental curve of the industry.

“Some places and people are talking about turning the waste into energy,” he said. “How cool would that be? It would add to our history. I don’t know if it’s possible here, but we should be looking at it.”

Stults agreed that if places like Santa Rosa or Petaluma beat Napa to the punch, local wineries could begin hauling the waste to such places. “We need to be willing to explore best practice from everywhere, and put together a task force to pinpoint what would work best for Napa,” he said.

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