No water for mega wine warehouse?

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Plans for a huge winery production warehouse on Eighth Street East – with estimates between 300,000 and half a million cases of wine to be produced annually – came before the Sonoma Valley Citizen’s Advisory Commission last week, colorfully wrapped in a high-tech water treatment plan to reclaim every drop of water used.

But the members of the commission drilled down to the crucial fact: some three million gallons of water would still need to be withdrawn annually from the aquifer, an aquifer that groundwater sustainability watchdogs are already concerned about.

The project applicant is Sequoia Warehousing, a limited liability company (LLC) apparently formed for this project. Three of its 10 members are listed on the Permit and Resource Management Department (PRMD) application, including Michael and Susan Norton, and Helge Bruckner. Mr. Norton, Bruckner and facilities manager Patrick Alcayaga pitched the project to the nine voting members of the citizen’s review commission present.

Bruckner is a well-known presence in the Eighth Street East area, instrumental in the development of Sonoma’s “industrial wine corridor” through a series of limited liability companies involved in winery production since the 1980s.

“This is not an irresponsible man,” said commission member Dick Fogg at one point, and Bruckner made his own case for his sound environmental management of the industrial corridor he’s helped put on the map for commercial use.

“That said, this is a significant issue,” Fogg went on, and the commission paid close attention to the proposal, which would be the largest winery production facility in the area.

Sequoia Warehousing estimated in its March 2015 filing a production of 300,000 cases per year on a 7.94-acre parcel, for two or three wineries. But by the time the project reached the SVCAC, they had narrowed their winery partners down to two or possibly only one, and upped their production goal to 500,000 cases.

The location, 22020 Carneros Vineyard Way, is off Eighth Street East between Schellville and Vineburg. The business park is still mostly in development, with bulldozed vacant lots embraced on two sides by vineyards. Three businesses are already in operation on the property, including Laure Chenel’s Chevre, Canau Cork, and Carneros Business Condos.

It is in one of the areas that the Sonoma Valley Basin Advisory Panel has identified as subject to depleted groundwater, and maps show the deep aquifer in the area may be at or below sea level. This proved to be a major point of concern at the Citizens Advisory Commission meeting, once opened to public comment and commission questions.

Facilities manager Alcayaga, who has worked with Bruckner projects for 10 years, spent his time outlining the water reclamation technology that will distinguish the project, one using a membrane bio-reactor process, or MBR. Comprised of both a biological component – waste-eating bacteria, described by Alcayaga as “little bugs” –– and nanofiltration, the process can treat waste water to non-detectible levels of impurities.

The goal, said Alcayaga, is net zero water use: “The intention and the goal is to reuse every gallon that is used in the winemaking process.” The water would be used for landscape irrigation on the business park grounds, in surrounding vineyards and possibly at the nearby Sonoma Skypark.

The water reclamation technology is superior to many processes currently being used locally, said Bruckner, though it is in use in San Luis Obispo near its developer, the engineering firm the Wallace Group. Locally it’s used by Hess Collection in American Canyon.

All of the water used in the winery’s production process – which Alcayaga estimated at between 2.5 to 4 gallons of water per gallon of wine – would be reclaimed by the process through trenches and other physical means, then diverted to the MBR process. The resulting treated water would be fed into the business park’s “purple pipe” system, already in place but never used.

Still, when it was time for the members of the citizen’s commission to ask questions, they wasted little time putting the “reclaimed water” in context. Margaret Spaulding questioned why landscape irrigation was a priority at all, in this drought-conscious era, and suggested exploring other uses including groundwater replenishment.

Her concerns were echoed by commissioners Bruce Green and Sean Bellach, who also seemed uncomfortable with the landscaping uses of the reclaimed water, even asking if it could be used in the winery production process itself instead of well-water. It would be the sixth well at the Carneros Business Park, most of them drilled down between 300 to 600 feet into groundwater, according to Alcayaga.

While Alcayaga said he had been tracking water levels for the past 10 years on nine area wells, and while there indeed had been a drop of groundwater levels between 2012-2013 of 18 inches, it rebounded 6 inches in the past year – still, a drop of a foot in the past three years.

When asked to elaborate further on water table levels in the area based on his well testing, Alcayaga replied, “I don’t have that data at hand, but I do have my business card.”

“The bottom line is, you’re still pumping out water,” said Ditty Vella, who estimated over a million gallons a year. (If production is 500,000 gallons, at a water-to-wine ratio of 3:1, the figure would be over 3.5 million gallons of water, or about 10 acre feet annually.)

Rachel Hundley – representing the City of Sonoma, and a non-voting member of the SVCAC – asked the meta-questions, “How much wine do we want to produce, or need to? How much water do we need to use for wine?” She added that while she was impressed by the water reclamation technology, calling it “cool,” she remained skeptical of the proposal overall.

It was Fogg who proposed that the commission approve the project on the condition that the applicant – as well as PRMD, the water and sewer agencies – convene in a public hearing to address the proposal in light of these larger questions. After some conventional dithering over how to word such a measure, it was passed 8-1, with an unconvinced Spaulding the only “nay.”

“Water is clearly the most significant issue facing Sonoma,” said Spaulding following the meeting. “I didn’t think the amendment to ‘work out a solution’ with the water agency really went far enough.

“Plus, it’s a really big project – it’s too big to start off at that size. I would have liked them to consider an incremental build-up over time, to find a way to deal with the water issue.” Spaulding is a relatively new member of the SVCAC, appointed by First District Supervisor Susan Gorin earlier this year.

Although they would not specify any winery partners at the SVCAC meeting, presumably because none are under contract as yet, sources indicate the major partner will be the Huneeus family of wines, including Contessa, Faust and one called The Prisoner – not named after the cult TV show of 1967-68, unfortunately. All use primarily Napa Valley-grown grapes. Whether or not they will keep their primary vineyard contracts in Napa and use the Sonoma Carneros facility for production only remains to be seen.

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