As climate change continues, and more arable land becomes potential wine country (read the “Clock is Ticking” post for details), there is something to consider besides the earthy and cherry notes in your next glass of pinot: wastewater. As in the two to ten gallons of wastewater produced for every gallon of wine. (Beer runs about 4 gallons of wastewater to gallon of beer, making it more environmentally sound to drown your tears in. You’re welcome.)
Some winemakers in Washington state were recently dismayed to learn that the Department of Ecology (DOE) has plans to begin regulating winery wastewater, with hopes for a preliminary draft of regulations in the summer of 2015. Wastewater from any industry contains cleaning agents and sediments, but in this case, winery wastewater also contains significant amounts of grape juice and organic sediments from the business of turning grapes into wine. While larger wineries have “point-source” permits for the legal discharge of their wastewater, smaller wineries, which have proliferated in the Pacific Northwest in recent years, do not require these permits. Their wastewater often joins that of domestic septic systems, which are not designed to handle such volumes of organic solids. This excess can lead to septic system failure, and consequent contamination of groundwater, an important source of drinking water. Another possible pathway for wastewater is irrigation, but this untreated water can easily run off of winery land and into aquatic systems, where it can wreak havoc on fish communities and upset the delicate balance of organisms that rely on clean water.
Winemakers are understandably concerned about the costs of such regulation, and some say it will force them out of business. Others offered that the wastewater from a small winery is “essentially non-toxic” but therein lies the rub. Non-toxic to who? When wastewater is discharged into nearby streams and rivers, oxygen in the water gets used up by the bacteria that are breaking down the waste. The result? Fish and other organisms don’t get enough oxygen, and they die. Small winery owners may feel that their operation alone is not impacting their local water quality, but what about the effects of many small wineries, compounded? While humans may love the products of crushed and fermented grapes, aquatic organisms generally don’t share our oenophile tendencies. California and Oregon already have winery wastewater permitting processes in place, and Washington, ready or not, will soon be joining them. Even Dionysus knows that you have to pay for your negative externalities at some point.