Salty groundwater major problem for Wine Country planning

april 20,2011

The Press-Enterprise

The aquifer below Temecula Valley Wine Country may lack the capacity to absorb more salt without degrading water quality, and the consequences could hamper efforts to add large wineries.
A state board has enacted new restrictions on the size of septic systems for new wineries. The rules have greatly hindered winery projects in the planning stages, said Mitra Mehta-Cooper, a Riverside County planner who deals with Wine Country issues.
As one water district studies salt levels, another is examining sewer lines for Wine Country, home to at least 30 wineries and a popular tourist destination. A sewer system would protect groundwater, but it’s not clear how much it would cost or who would pay for it.
The studies come as county planners continue their work on the Wine Country Community Plan, a long-range blueprint for growth that seeks to balance the interests of wineries, residents and horseback riders.
The plan envisions adding dozens of wineries. Many existing wineries have restaurants and venues for special events and weddings, and future projects could look more like resorts, with hotel rooms, shops and spas to complement tasting rooms and fine dining.
Aquifers are underground layers of water-laden rock from which groundwater can be extracted. The Temecula Aquifer supplies about a third of the water for southern Riverside County, according to the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, a state-empowered panel charged with protecting water quality in an area encompassing southwest county.
The board has set a limit for the amount of salt that can be discharged through wastewater into the part of the aquifer covered by Wine Country. The limit is meant to ensure homes and businesses as well as farmers can use the water.
Wastewater can be created at wineries through tasting rooms, restaurants, grape crushing and other activities. It then trickles down into the aquifer.
The Rancho California Water District, which supplies water to Wine Country, is studying the aquifer’s salt content and how much more salt it can take without affecting water quality. The early answer? Not much, said district General Manager Matt Stone, although he stressed the study is still ongoing.
The potential for too much salt in the aquifer is leading the water quality board to get more involved in regulating new wineries.
In an email, Amy Grove, an engineering geologist with the board, wrote the board “will take a more active role in regulation of waste discharges from wineries” given Wine Country’s planned growth and the aquifer’s inability to take on more salt. Rancho Water’s study will lead to a salt management plan for the region and help the board evaluate future winery projects, Grove wrote.
Mehta-Cooper said the board is already limiting septic tank sizes for new wineries to 1,200 gallons a day instead of 3,000 gallons, a move that has greatly slowed the pace of Wine Country growth.
Wine Country currently lacks sewer lines, which end at the Temecula city limits. Stone said a sewer system would send the wastewater to a treatment plant rather than let it sink into the aquifer.
A private consultant study commissioned by the Eastern Municipal Water District will determine how a Wine Country sewer system might operate, its cost and funding options. The study is expected to wrap up in early May, wrote Eastern spokeswoman Roxanne Roundtree in an email.
Stone said it makes sense to lay the groundwork for sewer systems now, before a wave of new wineries open “The benefit of doing it up front, if you can develop that overall system, you can do the most economical approach for that system and you can figure out a way to finance it as well,” he said.
But adding sewer service will likely cost millions, and Grove wrote sewer may not be available for two to three years. Roundtree wrote that sewer would be available for commercial and tourism land uses.
Many Wine Country residents are wary of being taxed for sewer lines they feel they don’t need. “We don’t want to pay for that,” said Heidi Betts, who lives off DePortola Road. “We’re not going to make money on the possibility of sewer installed.”
Jeff Wiens, president of the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association, said he’s in favor of extending sewer service. The owner of Wiens Family Cellars said overly salty water is not ideal for grapes.
“I would hope that residents out here would see the benefits of tying into sewer, too, for everyone’s water quality out here,” he said.


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