An employee at the Owen Roe Union Gap Vineyard uses a shovel to level out the grapes in the fermentation container as grapes fall from the sorting lines in August 2016. The state Department of Ecology recently implemented a new permit that would regulate wastewater management practices for more than 100 wineries statewide.

Before opening Treveri Cellars in Wapato, Juergen Grieb worked for a larger winery in Washington, and often coordinated with the state Department of Ecology on wastewater management practices.

He knew other states had implemented permitting programs to monitor wastewater generated during the winemaking process. The wine industry in his home country of Germany and the rest of Europe was subject to strict wastewater regulations.

He had a hunch Washington state would implement wastewater management regulations on a larger scale at some point.

“We’re the second-largest (wine) producer in the country,” Grieb said. “This was eventually going to happen.”

He turned out to be right.

Last month, the Department of Ecology implemented a new general permit that outlines and monitors the discharge of wastewater by winemaking operations that produce at least 7,500 cases of wine, or 17,835 gallons of wine, a year.

The permit, which lasts until July 1, 2024, outlines approved methods of discharge. Wineries covered under the permit need to comply with several requirements, including monitoring discharged wastewater and determining best practices for managing wastewater.

The new permit has drawn objections from some in the wine industry. They question whether the wineries need to bear the cost of abiding by Ecology’s regulations when the industry hasn’t been a significant source of pollution.

“There’s just not a lot of pollutants in a winery’s waste stream that are very dangerous,” said Paul Beveridge, owner of Wilridge Winery and president of Family Wineries of Washington, a trade group of small family-owned wineries.

Josh McDonald, executive director of the Washington Wine Institute, said his focus during the years he worked with Ecology on the permit were rules that provided flexibility and excluded as many wineries as possible.

After more than four years of work, McDonald feels those goals were achieved. With the benchmark at 7,500 cases, about 80 percent of wineries are not required to get the permit. And there’s an option to exempt winemaking facilities if they conduct wastewater management practices that Ecology deems as enough to protect the environment.

“I do believe this wastewater permit for wineries was at least flexible,” he said. “Not all of them are.”

Monitoring wastewater

Ecology officials said state law requires the agency to issue permits to any commercial or industrial operation that discharges solid or liquid waste into the environment.

Previously, Ecology primarily monitored winery wastewater practices through individual permits issued to the state’s largest facilities, said Stacey Callaway, general permit writer for the agency’s water quality program. Fourteen winemakers were covered under individual permits.

However, as the industry continued to grow — the state is now home to more than 900 wineries — the agency wanted another way to monitor wastewater practices.

That prompted the agency to pursue a general permit, which would provide a set of requirements that applied to every winemaking facility covered under it. Ecology would still issue individual permits to operations that needed or wanted more tailored requirements.

Ecology started the general permit process in 2014 and spent several years working with members of the wine industry to learn about industry practices. In 2017, it released a preliminary draft of the permit. The permit was revised several times based on feedback from public meetings and written comments.

The permit went into effect July 1. The cost, which is based on the gallons of wine or juice the facility produces, ranges from $296 to $33,196.

Winemaking facilities that are required to secure the permit have until Sept. 30 to apply for the permit and start complying with its regulations. So far more than a dozen winemaking facilities have applied for the permit.

However, Calloway emphasized that given how new the permit is, the focus is to help educate wineries on the permitting process instead of punishing them.

“We want to work hand-in-hand to help them achieve compliance,” she said.

Winery cost

Wineries face additional costs associated with complying with the requirements outlined in the permit.

Other winemaking facilities may face costs associated with wastewater management practices that would exempt them from the permit, such as transporting wastewater to a publicly-owned treatment facility or storing wastewater in a double-lined lagoon with a leak detection system.

The total cost varies depending on the size of the winery as well as the management practices of the winery, Callaway said.

In an October 2017 economic analysis, Ecology outlined potential costs. They ranged from more than $700 to meet monitoring requirements to hundreds of thousands of dollars for a large lagoon or other liquid storage structure that would collect discharged wastewater.

“It’s really up to the permittee how much money they want to spend,” Callaway said.

Such costs are a big ask when there isn’t any documented proof that winery wastewater impacts the environment, said Beveridge, the Wilridge Winery owner. He used to practice environmental law before going into winemaking.

He said wastewater discharged from winemaking facilities doesn’t go deep enough to impact the ground negatively. Wineries are being asked to bear the high cost for just the potential of pollution, he said.

“It’s the biggest overreach of the Department of Ecology I’ve seen in my career as an environmental lawyer,” he said.

Others in the wine industry have been more accepting.

Two Mountain Winery in Zillah is exempt from the permit after it installed a double-lined lagoon to collect wastewater. It made that decision after working with a consultant on the permitting process.

General manager and owner Patrick Rawn believes that something positive can come of the new permitting process.

“If this is the impetus for the industry as a whole to (generate) less wastewater, that’s awesome,” Rawn said.

His winery has been making improvements to use less water, such as increasing the load of grapes processed during harvest. The same amount of water is required each time, so if more fruit can be processed at once, less processing is needed and less water is used.

“We found a lot of little things that make an impact in the aggregate,” he said.

Treveri Cellars opted to modernize its wastewater system, Grieb said. That work, which cost more than $60,000, included installing new tanks and rerouting stormwater to ensure that only wastewater generated during the wine production process ends up in those tanks. The Wapato winery is working with a company that pumps wastewater out of the tanks and transports it to treatment facilities in Yakima and Zillah. That was enough for Treveri to be exempt from the permit.

While additional regulations are not ideal, Grieb said it’s a standard that other states and countries expect from winemaking facilities.

His focus was to do what he could to make the process as smooth as possible for his winery. He also felt that Ecology made a reasonable effort in creating a permit that worked for the industry.

“They worked the wineries and really tried to come up with a permit everyone could work with,” he said.

Reach Mai Hoang at maihoang@yakimaherald.com or Twitter @maiphoang