Water Management Key to Growth in Washington

Availability of water could stymie development in target growing areas

by Peter Mitham
washington wawgg
Ted Baseler of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates predicted during the annual meeting of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers that the number of planted vineyard acres would more than triple by 2040.
Kennewick, Wash.—Ste. Michelle Wine Estates is the biggest vintner in Washington state, a home-grown legend that’s won the right to dream big. Its partnership with Ernst Loosen helped make Washington state a notable source for premium domestic Riesling, with a 51.4% share of the market.

So when Ted Baseler stood up at the final luncheon of this year’s meeting of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers and announced that his winemakers had estimated that the state could grow to 200,000 acres of vineyard by 2040 (there’s about 60,000 acres right now), the bullish estimate grabbed attention.

The shock value wasn’t just because Baseler tagged that acreage as the source of grapes for premium wine production, posing a direct challenge to what he called 175,000 acres of premium wine grapes in California; it was because it takes a lot of water to make good wine. Or, as Mike Schwisow, director of government relations for WAWGG, told growers the previous day: Finding water is a challenge, and once you’ve found water, is it in the kind of place that yields grapes suitable for premium wine production?

“We don’t lack for sites,” he said. “We lack for stable water to bring those sites into production.”

Water availability at a trickle
Many basins are closed to further appropriation of water rights, Schwisow explained, and even the water rights that have been allocated are under pressure from water flows, as growers in the Roza Irrigation District found out in 2015 when the district reduced allocations in view of the state’s worst drought in a decade.

While a number of initiatives are taking place to increase the availability of water and protect what does exist, WAWGG speakers pointed out that water isn’t a limitless resource in the high desert of Eastern Washington, let alone the high mountains that surround it.

The renewal of infrastructure in the Kennewick Irrigation District delivered irrigation to 1,400 acres on Washington’s Red Mountain last year and opened the area’s eponymous viticultural area to fresh development, for example. It also kept 11,000 acre feet of water in the Yakima River, protecting habitat for in-stream critters (see “Red Mountain Goes Online”).

“This is an incredible project,” enthused Tom Tebb, director for the Office of the Columbia River with the Washington State Department of Ecology. “Not only is it good for farming, it’s good for fish.”

But the Yakima River Basin as a whole delivers 1.7 million acre of feet of water each year, making what’s been kept in the Yakima a drop in the bucket.

The basin depends on five reservoirs for 1 million acre feet of water each year, but the remainder comes from snowpack, which Tebb termed the region’s “sixth reservoir.”

With this year’s outlook calling for warm weather, and the general trend being to earlier precipitation and warmer annual temperatures prompting an earlier diminishment of the snowpack, it’s the sixth reservoir that needs to be watched. National weather forecasters are saying Eastern Washington and Idaho could see existing drought conditions intensify and new areas of drought emerge as 2016 advances, even though conditions of 2015 have largely reversed.

(On the plus side, grapegrowers depend little on run-off, though it looms large in planning for the basin as a whole.)

Conserving the quantity of water available for irrigation isn’t the only issue facing growers, who also discussed tips for boosting the efficiency of irrigation systems to ensure they’re making the best possible use of water. Tighter management through technology was discussed, as well as ensuring the quality of water reaching the field by keeping irrigation lines free of algae, debris and microbes.

But the top issue for many growers—especially those looking at developing new wineries or expanding existing facilities—is what’s going to be required of them in terms of wastewater.

Washington state continues to draft a wastewater permit for wineries, the process having stalled when the original permit writer, Chelsea Desforges, left last fall to pursue an arts career. (Desforges spoke at last year’s meeting of WAWGG; see “Washington State Drafting Wastewater Permit.”) 

Stacey Callaway, Desforges’ replacement, starts work Feb. 16.

Heather Bartlett, water-quality program manager with the Washington state Department of Ecology, assured growers that a permit is a blip on the horizon rather than something looming.

“We are still a ways off from having a general permit to issue,” Bartlett said. “I don’t have a sense of an exact timeframe.”

Bartlett said the permit, when drafted, aims to exempt the state’s smallest wineries from requiring a permit, though “small” is yet to be defined. She doesn’t expect vineyards and tasting rooms to need permits, either; the permit is designed solely for wineries with wastewater to discharge, and have hitherto done so to a non-delegated publicly owned treatment works (POTW); a municipal system or domestic septic field; which store it in unlined lagoons or apply it directly to fields.

Wineries will have a chance to comment on the draft permit when it’s available. It will be circulated at an appropriate time, she said (not at crush), and the initial five years will provide insights into how the permit could be improved.

Bartlett said she expects the permit, once available, to cost $350 to $500 per year for the smallest producers and up to $6,000 a year for the state’s largest wineries.

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