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Gallo winery ordered to pay over $375,000 after dumping wastewater into Merced River

Jason Leung

LIVINGSTON, Calif. – E. & J. Gallo Winery must pay more than $375,000 in fines and facility improvements after a state water investigation found the wine giant’s Livingston facility dumped more than 90,000 gallons of irrigation and waste water into the Merced River.

Staff with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife in August 2021 noticed a pump on private property discharging dark, murky, foul-smelling wastewater into the Merced River near Hagaman Park outside the city of Livingston, according to a settlement released this week by the state Regional Water Quality Control Board.

The Fish and Wildlife employee reported the incident to California’s Office of Emergency Services, sparking an investigation. Authorities determined the dump violated a number of state water laws.

The Merced River, which flows from Yosemite into the San Joaquin River, is protected under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The river is used for recreation, agriculture, industrial and municipal supply.

The board ordered Gallo to pay nearly $190,000 for cleanup. Gallo also must pay another $190,000 for a Merced County project to relocate the restroom septic tank and leach field at Hagaman Park to a higher elevation by 2024.

“Protecting the water quality of our creeks and rivers is a core duty of the regional board,” Clay Rodgers, an assistant executive officer of the board, said in a news release. “Discharges like these put the health of our waterways at risk, and the penalty reflects the seriousness of this violation. Gallo has also agreed to steps to prevent this from happening again in the future.”

Gallo disputed that the discharge was wastewater and installed a valve to prevent further dumping, according to the stipulation order. Gallo alleged that Fish and Wildlife staff prevented Gallo employees from accessing the dump site to confirm the dump and sample the discharge. Fish and Wildlife denied that assertion, the order says.

During its investigation, Water Quality Control Board staff confirmed the discharge contained high levels of potassium, organic matter and salinity, all of which pose a health threat to fish and other aquatic life, the stipulation order says.

Dale Harvey, a supervising water resource control engineer, said during a phone interview that the discharge appeared to be unintentional from what the investigation found.

Gallo Vice President for Global Environmental, Healthy & Safety and Sustainability Chris Savage did not respond to an email requesting comment.

Modesto-based Gallo is a family-owned winery with global operations spanning 130 brands including wine, distilled spirits and other beverages. The company employs 7,000 people worldwide and owns 19 wineries and more than 20,000 acres of vineyards in California and Washington.

Since 2015, Gallo’s Livingston, Madera and Fresno facilities have violated a number of state laws related to water, including wastewater discharge, deficient monitoring and late reporting, state records show.

Brianna Vaccari is an accountability and watchdog reporter for the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative, a nonprofit newsroom launched in 2021 by the James B. McClatchy Foundation.