Tri-City Herald: Ecology takes right step to court winemakers early

The Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers brought its annual convention to town last week, with attendees from all parts of the industry.

On the agenda were a trade show, tastings, sessions on industry issues and a banquet to raise money for a scholarship program.

One session that caught the attention of many of the attendees was one held by the state Department of Ecology on a soon-to-be-required permit for the discharge of wastewater from the winemaking process.

Usually a meeting with the Department of Ecology strikes fear into the heart of anyone in agriculture, even when the farmer has tried to do everything correctly.

Farmers are some of the best stewards of the earth. They need the land they love to be productive in perpetuity so it is advantageous for them to take good care of it. But the modern day relationship with regulatory agencies has had a rocky path, though it continues to improve as the sides develop a key component — communication.

That’s why many attendees were heartened to see the outreach from the state officials on the new permitting process. New rules and regulations can be difficult to swallow and comprehend.

DOE officials want producers to talk to them about how they currently deal with wastewater, which can be quite acidic. This is no small issue, and wineries are not being picked on. The department estimates the state’s wineries produce 120 million gallons of wastewater annually. Only 13 wineries have permits.

The three dozen big producers making more than 25,000 gallons of wine a year will have different issues than the hundreds of small wineries making much smaller amounts.

It’s smaller wineries that the state officials want to talk to and work with to shape a process and requirements that make sense. The permit will focus on wineries that discharge wastewater to land or into private water systems.

And part of the conversation is conservation. If you use less water, you have less to deal with on the other side of equation.

Both sides are looking at what has and hasn’t worked in other wine-producing regions.

But the most heartening part about the pending permit requirement is that it’s still in the formative stage and ecology officials are talking to those who it will directly affect, rather than just coming up with a one-sided plan and forcing it on producers.

A draft is expected in July and a 45-day comment period will follow. This is one of those cases where those affected truly have an opportunity to shape the regulations and be a partner in the process. There’s no pity for those who don’t participate now, then want to complain after the fact. This is how public agencies should operate.