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California to impose first statewide rules for winery wastewater, marking new era

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.

Rose Jimenez, a spokeswoman for Sonoma County Vintners, the primary trade group for local winemakers, said the majority of the county’s roughly 500 wineries will fall under the new state regulations.

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.

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.”

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 Healdburg failed and spilled nearly all of its cabernet sauvingon, 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.”

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com.

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