Sustainability has been a growing trend among many businesses, as much for the economic benefit as a desire to lessen the environmental impact of a facility. Often the effort to reduce, reuse and recycle is voluntary, while in other cases the result of prodding (gentle and otherwise) by government regulation. Washington state wineries, early adopters of voluntary sustainability practices, are about to get a taste of the regulatory side through a new wastewater permit coming this summer.

Voluntary sustainability has become market-driven, as one whisky distiller put it in a recent article in The Spirits Business, “Consumers and, in particular, the fabled ‘millennial’ generation are looking for more than just a quality liquid.” The Spirits Business quoted Adam Hunter, commercial manager at Arbikie, “They want to know about your distilling ethos, how you source your liquid, and what your carbon footprint is.” Mr. Hunter added, “Alcohol always follows food trends, which placed sustainability at the forefront of consumers’ minds. It is only a matter of time before this becomes a mainstream issue in drinks. Whether you’re a major brand or a small startup distillery, your approach to sustainability will only increase in importance.”

And there is measureable progress being made on the voluntary front. For example, the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) issued their Environmental Strategy Report in March 2018 showing their distillers making major strides towards minimizing the use of natural resources and reducing the impact on the environment.

The SWA proudly noted that the industry-wide effort begun in 2009 has reached several of its targets four years ahead of schedule, including:

  • Twenty-one percent of primary energy use now is from non-fossil fuel sources;
  • Water efficiency has reached nearly three times the 2020 target;
  • Recycled content accounts for 44 percent of product packaging; and
  • Ninety-seven percent of packaging is reusable or recyclable.

The industry is also close to zero waste sent to landfills, down to four percent from 13 percent in 2008, but energy efficiency and reducing the weight of packaging remain challenging areas.

Here in Washington, which is the second-largest wine-producing state in the U.S., owners and winemakers have been voluntarily operating their facilities in environmentally-conscious ways for a number of years, including composting solid winery waste, capturing and reusing rain water, using solar panels, operating in LEED-certified buildings and taking steps to become carbon neutral. But in the critical area of wastewater, Washington’s winemaking industry is about to see more government regulation directed at protection of groundwater, surface water and wastewater treatment plants. This summer should see the culmination of a four-year effort by the Washington Department of Ecology (Ecology) to develop the Winery General Permit, which would take effect in the summer of 2019.

It should be no surprise that wine making is a water-intensive process — the average facility uses 1,100 gallons of water per ton of grapes and about six gallons of water for each gallon of wine produced. The greatest amount of wastewater is generated by barrel washing, floor washing, cleaning tanks and equipment for racking, and other sanitation. Up to now, Ecology has regulated the wastewater discharges of individual wineries through individual permits, but only 14 wineries currently have such permits. Because there are commonalities between and among wineries when it comes to wastewater, Ecology has developed the Winery General Permit for new and existing facilities that discharge more than 53,505 gallons of wastewater per calendar year or produce more than 7,500 cases (17,835 gallons) of wine or juice per calendar year. Once the permit is effective, the 14 current individual permittees will be required to apply for the general permit, as will between 70 and 250 other wineries (the differences are due to variations between the WA Liquor and Cannabis Board annual sales data and a survey by Winerywise).

The Winery General Permit will focus on four main pollutants of concern — organic material, pH, salinity and solids. Six types of discharge methods will be authorized under the permit — discharges to a wastewater treatment plant (publicly- or privately-owned), discharges to land via irrigation to managed vegetation, discharges to lagoons or other liquid storage structures, discharges as road dust abatement, discharges to a subsurface infiltration system, or discharges to an infiltration basin. No permit is required if the discharge is to a municipal wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) that Ecology has determined to have adequate programs and infrastructure to regulate wastewater discharges from winemaking facilities, or if to a lagoon that is double-lined and has leak detection. Other discharges, such as to an infiltration basin, land treatment, road dust control, or subsurface infiltration system, will require a permit.

All permitees will be required to monitor their wastewater flow on a monthly basis and sample wastewater quarterly. The quarterly results would be reported in Discharge Monitoring Reports (DMRs). For the implementation phase of the permit, Ecology will divide wineries into two groups. Group 1 will be small winemaking facilities, typically those that discharge less than 600,000 gallons of wastewater per calendar year. Group 2 is comprised of the large facilities that exceed that threshold. The DMR requirements vary depending on which group a winery is in and the type of discharge practice. All facilities will have to prepare a Winery Pollution Prevention Plan that outlines the facility, the waste management system, best management practices for handling wastes, schedules and waste management practices. It’s particularly important to have an accurate and robust pollution prevention plan and to submit timely discharge monitoring reports since non-compliance can not only result in Ecology enforcement action but lawsuits by citizens environmental groups.

The General Permit is likely to introduce some costs for wineries, although Ecology says it has tried to soften the blow by providing a number of ways to mitigate the compliance costs, at least initially. The permit, however, is just one example of the trend driven by the market and by regulation to move toward using less.