By Miquela Berge & Sarah Pyle
From the grapevine to table, wine has played an important role in connecting people from near and far and through times of celebration and joy. Though previously thought a fairly sustainable industry, recent studies surrounding water pollution and emissions beg the question: are wineries a water-pollution culprit? The winegrowing industry in the United States, 80% of which takes place in California, generates around 1.1 million jobs each year and contributes around $170.5 billion in annual economic activity. Despite winegrowing’s impact on cultural and economic vitality in the United States, the winemaking industry also threatens the health and longevity of freshwater resources, including waterways and ecosystems. On average, a typical winery on the western coast of the United States may use up to 10 gallons of water for every gallon of wine produced. Because of the copious amounts of water utilized in the winemaking process, monitoring and regulating water usage is important for ensuring the continued availability of water resources. Additionally, wastewater from processing must be treated properly so that there is little damage to other crops or soil, aquatic life is not killed or harmed, and surface water is not contaminated. Wineries have various environmental impacts throughout the grape growing and wine production process, but relevant regulations and other legislation can be used to minimize those impacts and make the wine industry more sustainable.
In general, wineries already pose long-lasting problems on habitat quality. Deep plowing and application of fungicides and fertilizers represent just some of the ways that wineries remove vegetation and change the habitat value for native vertebrae and invertebrates. Climate change also plays a large role in how wine production’s water usage and wastewater impact freshwater ecosystems. As climates become increasingly warmer, vintners will have to utilize more water to keep their grapevines protected from drought and heat stress. Likewise, climate change could also contribute to a decrease in precipitation, which would subsequently increase the amount of irrigation, and thus water, needed to keep the vineyards healthy. An increase in water demand for wine production could be problematic for regions that are already experiencing water shortages. Under climate change, many areas of the world are experiencing increasingly severe droughts and water availability issues. Without sufficient water resources, those regions would be at much greater risk of impacts such as groundwater overdraft, desertification, and food and water insecurity. Fortunately, there are existing regulations and policy goals to prevent the overexploitation of water resources.
Regulating water is not a new concept, but is necessary for the sustainability of the wine-making industry both in the United States and around the world. In 2014, California passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) which sought to protect groundwater resources in the state through the establishment of groundwater sustainability plans and agencies. The Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) develop Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSPs) for medium and high priority groundwater basins throughout the state to manage groundwater resources sustainably and prevent declines in groundwater level and storage, water quality, and surface water resources, as well as other negative impacts like saltwater intrusion. For example, the GSP developed by the North Fork Kings GSA in the Kings subbasin includes information about groundwater conditions, management criteria, sustainability projects and objectives, monitoring programs, and a water budget. On a global scale, there are also measures to help protect water resources such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In particular, SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation sets targets for how to prevent groundwater over extraction and contamination of freshwater resources. Aside from groundwater, wineries also have impacts on surface water from releasing untreated wastewater into the environment.
Wineries generate excessive amounts of wastewater from activities such as wine production and cleaning. Residual wine, stems, and grape skin result in wastewater with high acidity, sugar levels, and nitrogen concentrations that can have detrimental effects on the environment. Contamination can also occur if the winery’s septic tank fails, and because the wastewater contains high amounts of organic matter and extreme pH ranges, groundwater aquifers that are used for drinking water could become easily polluted and unusable. Cleaning products are another contaminant that is commonly found in winery wastewater. Tanks, barrels, filters, and other equipment used to produce wine are regularly sanitized and washed with water and various cleaning products. The chemicals from those products get washed into the water, generating wastewater that can be harmful to soils and water ecosystems. Without proper treatment, the organic chemicals travel into nearby waterways, a phenomenon known as eutrophication. This can cause the growth of oxygen-depleting algal blooms in nearby waterways, once nutrient excess has accumulated. These algal blooms decrease overall water quality and often result in hypoxic zones, which can be deadly to aquatic life. Wastewater, which will increase the salinity of the soil, also impedes the health of the vegetation and soil biota. In order to mitigate the harsh effects of wastewater, states across the country have introduced different regulations to contribute to a more sustainable winemaking process.
Currently, in the state of Washington, the Winery General Permit, which provides recommendations and practices for managing wastewater, has been implemented since 2019. It applies to wineries that produce at least 53,505 gallons of water, 7,500 cases of wine, or 17,835 gallons of wine annually and discharges wastewater generated in the winemaking process to a wastewater treatment plant, lagoon, or road dust abatement among others. Wineries that meet these wastewater markers are required to obtain this permit. Discharge limitations and monitoring requirements set and provide a viable framework that wineries can utilize to properly dispose of wastewater without damaging local freshwater ecosystems. Likewise, coverage under a general, less stringent permit, also creates a standardized set of regulation requirements. Unlike an individual permit, which could be necessary if wastewater discharges at the facility are not typical of the industrial group, a general permit can cover wastewater discharges that have similar characteristics. Essentially, the general permit provides regulations and guidelines for typical conditions for a specific industrial group, which would make sense considering that the wastewater treatment of many facilities is similar. This provides better environmental protection, especially to freshwater systems, as general permits can be set faster and more efficiently for those winemaking facilities that generate wastewater. Similarly, the California State Water Board developed regulations for wineries that generate and discharge winery waste. These waste discharge requirements (WDRs) use a tiered system. It is based on the volume of wastewater discharge prior to treatment, with different tiers having separate monitoring and reporting requirements. In addition to wastewater, the WDRs also consider the impact on groundwater resources.
Overall, the wine industry has various impacts on the environment from surface water contamination to decreased soil health. Changes in fertilizer use and wastewater treatment can help make wineries more sustainable. Humans have harmed the environment in countless ways and will continue to do so unless we acknowledge and mitigate the impacts of our actions. Wine is enjoyed by millions of people around the world, but the environmental degradation associated with its production is problematic for more environmentally-conscious individuals. It is important to minimize the negative impacts of our actions when possible, and fortunately wineries have many opportunities to decrease their impact. There is already existing legislation aimed at general environmental protection as well as specific winery actions, but additional regulations are necessary to prevent further degradation of nature. However, legislation is not the only way to effectively promote more sustainable methods in wineries. Currently, there are several sustainability certifications and wine grower associations for wineries that have developed around the world. Programs such as Sustainable WA and Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing (CCSW) offer third-party verified certifications for wineries that follow various sustainable winegrowing standards and best practices. Internationally, there are also winery groups such as International Wineries for Climate Action (IWCA) that are committed to carbon neutrality throughout the winemaking process, and the Vignerons en Développement Durable Association which is composed of sustainability focused wineries in France that have developed their own sustainable winegrowing certification. These certifications and associations can help consumers identify which wines are produced sustainably based on legitimate, verified criteria. By supporting sustainability focused wineries and actively choosing to buy and drink sustainably sourced wines, people can help positively impact the environment by incentivizing wine producers to use more environmentally friendly methods.
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