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State water board imposes new rules on most wineries

Issue Date: January 27, 2021
By Christine Souza

Despite pleas from winery owners and their representatives—one of whom described the wine sector as "an industry on the brink"—state water regulators adopted new regulations on wastewater discharge.

The State Water Resources Control Board voted unanimously last week to adopt a general, statewide order for how winery wastewater must be processed and discharged. Winery representatives said they consider the requirements excessive.

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 regulation, which will be implemented by regional water boards—a process that will begin after the state board adopts a fee schedule for the statewide order at a meeting scheduled for March 9. The board said the order would safeguard groundwater and surface water through a permitting process for water discharge.

The order classifies wineries into regulatory tiers based on the total volume of processed water discharged annually prior to treatment, with different application requirements, fees, and monitoring and reporting requirements. Wineries discharging less than 10,000 gallons of wastewater per year would be exempted, unless they are determined to be in an area of high winery density.

About 30 individuals representing small, medium and large-scale wineries testified virtually last week, with some asking that the board delay adopting the order—particularly given the damage and losses wineries and grape growers have suffered from wildfires and pandemic-related sales declines.

Michelle Benvenuto, executive director of the Winegrowers of Napa County, said, "I'm trying to think of how to make things better for our vintners and their employees in a year that has been devastating. We are an industry on the brink."

Michael Martini of Taft Street Winery in Sebastopol told the board the events of the past year have been hard on small producers, specifically the closures of restaurants and tasting rooms.

"The pressure is on, as smaller brands sell out to larger producers or just call it quits. This is the unintended consequence of the adoption of this order," he said.

Martini and others suggested a more workable program that would involve identifying any problem at each individual site and addressing that specific problem, rather than a blanket regulation.

Ted Wells of Trinchero Family Estates in Napa also emphasized the importance of site-specific data and site monitoring for a period of time before wineries are mandated to build nutrient management systems.

"I understand that as it is written, you are going to be asking me to go spend $3 million to $6.5 million on a problem that we both don't know is real at those five sites," Wells told the board.

Susanne Zechiel of Santa-Rosa based Jackson Family Wines said, "Our goals are not in opposition, we just want the order to appropriately characterize and address the risks wineries may or may not pose to water quality," adding concern that money the winery has already spent voluntarily on environmental and sustainability efforts might need to be diverted in order to comply with the order.

Noelle Cremers, director of environmental and regulatory affairs for the Wine Institute, which represents California wineries, recommended revisions to the order to add more flexibility and reduce cost.

Ultimately, the board approved changes that could allow the largest wineries to participate in regional groundwater monitoring rather than individual monitoring.

The board also agreed to allow wineries subject to the effluent limits for subsurface systems to instead install groundwater monitoring wells that must be approved by the regional board. Cremers said if the monitoring shows the groundwater is above the approved limit, wineries would have one year to prepare a nitrogen control plan and meet the effluent limits.

Cremers said the Wine Institute was satisfied with the board's decision to offer groundwater monitoring flexibility for large wineries but was generally disappointed by the outcome.

"It's unfortunate that they failed to take a more substantial effort to recognize the significant costs that the order will place on wineries with subsurface disposal systems, especially small wineries who have already been challenged by wildfires and COVID," she said.

The state's wine sector will suffer $4.2 billion in losses from COVID-19 and lose an additional $3.7 billion from the 2020 wildfires, Cremers said.

California Farm Bureau Director of Water Resources Danny Merkley, who spoke at the meeting, said smaller wineries affected by the order would be "the most vulnerable because of their limited resources and economic impacts from the pandemic and recent wildfires."

Billy Grant, part-owner of a few small California wineries, said he agreed about the importance of water quality, but would need to consider how he would pay for the required treatment methods.

"We've financed everything, we've put up our houses, we signed personal guarantees and put it all at risk to be in this business" Grant said, adding, "There are some smaller wineries that are going to have an incredibly difficult time."

Ashley Egelhoff, assistant winemaker at family-owned Honig Vineyard & Winery in Napa, discussed the financial impact of the regulation on top of an already tough 2020.

"Due to wildfires, we will be bottling about 42% of our normal case production," Egelhoff said. "Not only does this affect the long-term financial impact of losing most of the vintage and subsequent revenue that vintage would generate, it puts us in an awkward position with respect to the general order. The time, labor and cost burden (of the order) would be difficult to reconcile."

Mendocino County Farm Bureau Executive Director Devon Jones said the 80-plus wineries in the county practice sustainability and are innovative in their approaches to minimizing their impact to the land and resources.

Speaking on behalf of the California Association of Winegrape Growers, Bob Gore noted cascading regulatory initiatives on water quality and quantity that have engaged grape growers for more than a decade.

"It is worth recalling that sustainability as a tenet includes economic sustainability," Gore said.

In a separate action, a group of more than 50 wineries and restaurants in Napa and Sonoma counties filed a lawsuit last week seeking to overturn a ban on in-person dining. The coalition cited "ravaging" effects on local businesses and employees, alleged uneven application of the restrictions and violation of equal-protection laws.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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