Wine’s emerging water crisis

As more regions struggle with water shortages, Michelle Bouffard takes a look at one initiative to help conserve this precious resource.

Harvey, Alford, Pannell
Harvey, Alford, Pannell

Drought is a growing concern in many parts of the world. In South Africa, which has faced such critical water shortages that the city of Cape Town nearly ran dry, signs with the tag line ‘Water is our lifeline’ can be seen everywhere. The lack of water has become such a problem that some grape growers who need to irrigate are even questioning the long-term viability of their crop. This is not just a South African problem – agriculture is the greatest user of water globally, and drought is an increasing threat in many countries. Yet one region, the McLaren Vale in South Australia, had the insight three decades ago to put a water plan in place to ensure sustainability.  

The plan

McLaren Vale calls itself one of the most sustainable wine regions in Australia, whose grapes are irrigated with water from aquifers, dams and reclaimed water from nearby water treatment plants. To have access to non-dam water, licences are required. In 1991, a group of farmers got together and lobbied the government to impose water restrictions, one of the first initiatives of its kind in the country. A moratorium on further water licences became official by the 2003/2004 growing season. A limit of 1.1 megalitre (ML) of water per hectare was set, in a region where farmers had used up to 3ML per hectare. Jock Harvey, a consultant and vineyard manager at Chalk Hill, helped put the scheme together. “It took a while for growers to adopt this change,” he said. “Farmers were getting a lot of money for their crop at that time. Chardonnay now worth A$1,000 ($713) a tonne was A$2,000 in 1989”. But in the long run, Dudley Brown, owner of Inkwell Wines, thinks the move was good for everyone. “Once the water got limited, people naturally produced smaller crops, resulting in more flavours in the grapes. It raised the quality and reputation of the wines,” he said.

This was just step one of their strategy. Groundwater was depleting, and salinity was increasing, limiting the establishment of new vineyards. The future for sustainable farming was also in question. In 1997 a group of 15 growers got together and founded the Willunga Basin Water Company (WBWC), a pipeline system to supply reclaimed water for irrigation to McLaren Vale farmers. They bought the rights from the Christies Beach Wastewater Treatment Plant, which produces about 10GL per year. The group invested a total of A$7m and got contracts for 40 years of water. By 1999, everything was up and running. “It was that quick because it was done privately, with no help of the government,” said Harvey, who was involved. This opened up land for new plantings and contributed to the boom of the late ’90s. “It also allowed irrigators to replace mains water [A$3,500 per ML] with reclaimed water [A$1,200 per ML],” he adds. 

The WBWC sources approximately 6GL of treated wastewater each year. The system comprises 120km of underground pipework and at peak capacity can deliver 8,160ML of water over a typical 120-day irrigation period. The company currently supplies water to 215 customers, representing 45% of the growers. 

If a producer wants to connect to the pipeline, there is a one-time fee. Antonia Stevens, financial controller at the WUA, says it costs an average A$7,500 per ML to get set up. It is paid upfront and covers the capital cost to connect. If there is no pipeline in the area where the vineyards are located, the WBWC will consider installing pipelines as long as enough growers within the same region are willing to connect and buy water. Afterwards, growers buy a water allocation for the year. Prices vary according to how much is purchased, but it works out at about A$1.16/kilolitre, according to Stevens. 

The results

Using reclaimed water for irrigation has a positive impact on the environment. Not only does it take pressure off the underground water, but the other big advantage is that a large quantity of wastewater is no longer going to the ocean. Dudley Brown of Inkwell says that barely treated wastewater running off the Gulf Saint Vincent was destroying the adjacent coral reef. “This gulf is skinny and does not have a high water flow, so the nitrogen accumulates. It kills seagrass and underground habitats start dying,” said Brown. Another problem, he said, is oestrogen going into the water. “Women are on the pill and the oestrogen in the urine is hard to filter out, so it goes to the sea, disturbing fish reproduction.” He said the reclaimed water system has reduced ocean pollution by 60%.

WBWC’s establishment has ensured the industry’s sustainability; as Stephen Pannell of S.C. Pannell winery said, one of the biggest problems Australia faces is water security. But with this system, he feels secure. The WBWC saved Gemtree Wines from what could have been a tragedy, said owner and biodynamic viticulturist Melissa Brown. The aquifer where the winery is located is under stress, with the water becoming salty and the flow rate decreasing. It doesn’t have water licences attached to every parcel and can’t get more. For a while, it was able to transfer a water licence to increase supply, but only temporarily under Water Board rules. “I can’t imagine which position we would have been in should the WBWC have refused to connect us to the system,” she said. 

The WBWC is a privately owned company, which means profit is important. However, Elly Alford, business development and client services manager, said that even though pricing is not regulated, the company has a focus on sustainability. “Reasonable pricing is key if you want people to buy,” she said. Melissa Brown said that water is still very expensive. “It adds an extra cost of A$4,500 per acre. But we can’t take this into account when we finalise the price tag of our wines.” What is driving an increase in price is the high cost of power, which Dudley Brown said is increasing by about 2-3% a year. 
What if a winery or grower runs out of water once they have purchased an allocation? They can’t get more – and if they don’t use all of it, they still need to pay for it. “Humans naturally want to make use of their investment. It’s easier turn the tap on, than off,” said Stephen Pannell. But this might not encourage producers to preserve precious water if they over-purchased. 

Currently, the WBWC has access to 12.5GL but has space to store 6.5GL. Developing storage facilities to house water in the winter and meet demand is a priority, says Alford. The company has applied for government funding, but will go ahead whether it gets the funding or not. Further to that, a total of A$2m has been invested allowing for an expansion into McLaren Flat to the east of the McLaren Vale Township. The infrastructure will enable further expansion into Blewitt Springs, which has no supplementary water supply. WBWC also has other business prospects, both in Australia and further afield, in New Zealand. 

Global water scarcity is a story that’s just beginning, and as growers from around the world become thirsty, they will need to find solutions. McLaren Vale has the largest reclaimed water network in Australia and 100% of all irrigation is coming from a sustainable resource other than river water. One can only hope other regions look at this model closely and follow Elly Alford’s mantra: If you like wine, flush twice.  

The looming water crisis

While droughts are common in countries like South Africa and Australia, farmers who are normally immune to these kinds of crises found themselves grappling a severe drought in 2018. According to The Guardian, state of emergency were declared in Latvia and Lithuania, while more than 50 wildfires raged in Sweden. The drought affected Scandinavia, Scotland, Ireland, the Baltics, the Netherlands and parts of Germany, while large areas in the US were subject to abnormal dryness and severe to exceptional drought conditions. Drought affected regions included Oregon, Washington and parts of California.

Wine grapes are exquisitely sensitive to changes in environment, including water stress and there are numerous projects underway to tackle the issue: the trialling of different grape varieties; the breeding of drought-resistant varieties and moves to conserve, clean and recycle water. The use of dams and rainwater tanks will probably also become more widespread.

Looming water shortages are an emergency, and not only for the wine trade: the UN has warned that water scarcity is likely to lead to conflict between communities and nations.

There could be one interesting consequence for the wine trade. Water allocation is likely to become ever more heavily regulated. That, and growing drought conditions, augurs badly for the production of heavily irrigated, low-value grapes grown in hot and dry areas. After all, when water is scarce, it makes no sense for countries to be exporting their precious water in bottles of low value wine. Water scarcity could drive such wines out of the market altogether.

In the meantime, working out how many litres of water it takes to produce one bottle of wine, and then working out how to reduce that number, should be a priority for producers. The days of cleaning winery floors with drinking quality water need to end.

Michelle Bouffard

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