Wineries are no longer immune from the complex world of environmental regulation. The Washington state Department of Ecology intends to regulate wastewater discharges from wineries through a Waste Discharge General Permit. Through public outreach, Yakima Valley wineries are encouraged to educate the agency on common industry practices.

The state’s goal is to limit groundwater contamination and reduce water consumption in winemaking. The latter objective is specifically targeted at wineries operating in the more arid Yakima Valley AVAs where water supply is an ongoing concern. A final draft permit for official public comment will give the regulated community an opportunity to participate after crush this Fall. Ecology’s current timeline finalizes the new permit by Dec. 31, 2017, with an effective date in 2019.

Blissfully unaware of such regulatory tools as water-quality based effluent limits, technology based effluent limits, and AKART (all known, available and reasonable methods of prevention, control and treatment), Eastern Washington’s blossoming wine industry will soon be fully immersed in water quality science, technology, and regulation. The cost of compliance can be significant, especially for wineries in the Yakima Valley AVAs where municipal treatment is not available. Admittedly, wineries are not a major source of pollution, but high-profile incidents at some institutional wineries in California have Washington state regulators sufficiently concerned to prompt policy changes.

Not all wineries are subject to the new regulations; for example, small facilities (under 7,500 cases per year) are exempt because their contribution to groundwater contamination is generally insignificant. This exception is intended to reduce the regulatory burden on the roadside wineries that have flourished in recent years such as those near the Yakima Valley Highway in the Rattlesnake Hills AVA. Many local favorites will likely remain exempt due to their relatively small annual production, but the risk of noncompliance through civil penalties is on the permittee. In subsequent permit cycles, the state intends to revisit this threshold when more data is collected from individual wineries.

Above the threshold, the general permit applies equally across the industry. The state’s “one-size-fits-all” approach may disrupt operations at some wineries. For example, wineries treat wastewater differently depending on such factors as volume, location, and access to a treatment facility. To account for differences, the permit is organized by six separate discharge methods. The most common for Yakima Valley wineries, where public treatment is not available, are infiltration to on-site septic systems and irrigation to managed vegetation. Each discharge method has a separate set of target pollutants, effluent limitations, and adaptive management measures. Technical advice is essential to a smooth transition.

It is unclear how these new regulations will affect Yakima Valley wine production, quality, and taste. Regional and winery specific concerns should be raised through the notice and comment process with the agency. The Department of Ecology is a state agency implementing statewide policy objectives that will disproportionately impact wineries in rural regions of Eastern Washington. As a result, it does not matter whether these new regulations are right or wrong; it will be the law. Sure, the risk of water quality impacts to groundwater is small. And sure, altering water consumption through wastewater regulation may have unintended consequences on product quality and taste. These issues, among others, must be conveyed to Department of Ecology before it issues the final permit.

Public participation at this stage is key to advising the state on industry standards and practices. The industry is as unique as each wine produced. Ecology needs feedback from the community to understand the permit’s impacts on Washington’s wine makers.

Sign up

Ideas & Insights