Healdsburg on Friday took emergency measures to provide highly treated, recycled wastewater for use by grape growers, ranchers and others dealing with the record drought.
In a special meeting amid what was described as the driest year on record in California, the Healdsburg City Council unanimously approved the immediate delivery of the reclaimed water from the city's sewage plant.
Despite not having approval yet from North Coast state water quality regulators to use the treated, disinfected effluent, city officials said they believe Gov. Jerry Brown's drought declaration last month gives them authority to proceed right away.
"We live in an extraordinary time. I believe the time for action is now," said Mayor Jim Wood. "Our farmers here need some help."
The action means the city will start work on a pipeline to bring the effluent from the city's treatment plant on Foreman Lane to Kinley Drive, where it can be hauled away for dust control at construction sites, or tapped into by area vineyards. It will also be available immediately through a hydrant at the treatment plant.
The city is not charging for the water, although haulers will be required to apply for a simple permit.
Utilities Director Terry Crowley estimated that the water can be used on 600 acres nearby, mostly vineyards, offsetting 50 million gallons of potable water use.
Representatives for the grape industry as well as the Sonoma County Farm Bureau applauded the move.
"Thank you for taking this action and stepping up," said Bob Anderson of United Wine Growers. "The conditions we're facing, we've never seen before."
He noted that the reclaimed water is cleaner than what comes from the Santa Rosa sub-regional treatment plant, which irrigates 6,300 acres.
Anderson said Healdsburg's reclaimed water can be used for frost protection as well as irrigation. "The only problem is the amount needed is more than what you have available," he told the council.
There were some dissenting voices, including from Dry Creek residents and growers who are wary of the effluent seeping into their aquifer.
Fred Corson, chairman of the Dry Creek Citizens Advisory Council, said it appeared the city was trying to short-circuit the regulatory process and could be on shaky legal ground.
He said Dry Creek has unique geology and hydrology that could lead to the reclaimed water contaminating groundwater.
"I'm upset you would even consider poisoning the land," said Gerry Pasterick, a Dry Creek grape grower.
But advocates for the use of the treated effluent said the same arguments had been raised and dismissed decades ago in wine growing regions like Carneros, where use of recycled water is now standard.
It's applied to sports fields, lawns, and even strawberries and artichoke fields in places like Monterey County.
Healdsburg officials say the water meets drinking water standards and is superior to most of the reclaimed water used for irrigation and other purposes in parts of Sonoma County and the state.
"Tertiary treated water is a key component to solving our water problems," said Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar.
Healdsburg churns out about 1 million gallons daily of the tertiary treated water at its new wastewater plant, but currently discharges it into a pond that leaches into the adjacent Russian River.
The city is supposed to end the discharges into the river this year, but is seeking an extension from the North Coast Regional Water Quality Board, which also has yet to approve use of the plant's recycled water.