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Is giving treated wastewater to livestock legal?


California's drought is prompting a statewide push to let ranchers use treated wastewater for slaking the thirst of livestock, sparking health concerns and widespread confusion over whether current regulations already allow the practice.

Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, has introduced legislation that he said would allow ranchers to legally use treated wastewater as drinking water for cows, horses, sheep and other farm animals for the first time in California.

Levine said the state Department of Public Health, which he said has authority over the practice, has never approved a single such request.

"It's really possible in name only," said Levine, who is hosting a forum today in Petaluma on the issue as chair of the Assembly Select Committee on Agriculture and the Environment.

However, Levine's bill, AB 2071, has sparked anxiety on the North Coast, where some farmers already are using treated wastewater for their animals and have been doing so for years. It's unclear whether that violates any laws.

"The confusion is across the board, not only with producers but also with agencies," said Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar.

The city of Santa Rosa, for instance, has not restricted about 70 ranchers who are linked to its water distribution system from using treated wastewater for livestock consumption, with the exception of animals producing milk. That arrangement has existed since 1989, when the city began tertiary treatment, according to Randy Piazza, Santa Rosa's superintendent of reclamation.

"That was my understanding of the regulations," he said.

A Sonoma County dairyman who is on Santa Rosa's system said he's been filling drinking troughs with treated wastewater for years. He said he gives the water only to young cows that are not producing milk.

"We were always told you could use it," said the dairyman, who requested that his name not be used because he fears that his farm could lose its organic designation or be closed if officials determine that he shouldn't have been using the water.

Similar concerns were raised in January at a meeting in Two Rock of dozens of North Bay farmers and Sonoma County officials.

Kevin Booker, an engineer with the Sonoma County Water Agency, said California's recycled-water regulations do not address giving treated water to animals to drink. He said the Water Agency would want approval from state public health officials or from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, however, before letting customers use the water for that purpose.

In the current environment, "each agency must interpret the regs for themselves," Booker said.

Advocates for greater use of treated wastewater view it as a potential salve to California's water woes as the state inches closer to summer amid historic drought conditions. Farmers already use such water to irrigate crops, including for vineyards in Sonoma County.

Petaluma Councilman Mike Healy said he contacted Levine about drafting the treated wastewater bill amid concerns the city is using up its supply of potable water for agricultural purposes, which he said currently is at a rate of about 50,000 gallons a day, or less than 1 percent of its overall daily supply.

"On the one hand, it's a big number, Healy said. "On the other hand, it's a small number."

He cited two main reasons for attention to the issue: Ranchers' use of potable supplies could increase if dry conditions continue; and local cities including Petaluma face the prospect of potable supply cuts from the county Water Agency if the drought persists.

The city of Sonoma addressed the dilemma recently by cutting off exports to agriculture from its municipal water supply, Healy said.

"We've tried not to do that because we recognize that people's livelihoods are at stake," Healy said. "But we recognize it is a delicate situation."

He said the city already uses treated wastewater to irrigate golf courses and school grounds and for other uses.

"We want to be able to continue to support the ag community, but with a product we're not limited on," he said. "The fresh water is going to get tighter and tighter as we march into summer and into next year."

The Sonoma County Farm Bureau is backing the legislation, which executive director Tim Tesconi described as a "huge benefit to dairy farmers and other livestock producers who are in need of good, clean water for animals."

Critics, however, say giving farm animals treated wastewater to drink potentially exposes the animals — and the people who use them as a source of food — to dangerous chemical compounds linked to illnesses ranging from immune disorders to cancer.

Recycled water potentially contains bacteria such as salmonella, said James Cullor, professor of population health and reproduction at the School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis.

But he said the bacteria levels are so low in highly treated tertiary water that the risk to animals or humans is "very minimal, and I want to emphasize minimal."

Another concern is whether using treated wastewater for livestock consumption potentially jeopardizes a farm's organic certification.

"If water meets state and federal requirements for use in agricultural production, it may be used in organic production," said Robin Boyle, a spokeswoman for California Certified Organic Farmers.

But it's unclear just what is permitted under current California regulations.

A spokesman for the state Department of Public Health said Wednesday that the agency establishes regulations governing the uses of recycled water when it has the potential to come into direct or indirect contact with people. But he said that does not include recycled water used for livestock consumption.

California Department of Food and Agriculture regulations state that the water supplies in milk houses and dairy barns be of "safe and sanitary quality" and conform to the bacterial standards for public supplies of drinking water.

Levine, however, contends that the state public health agency has authority over recycled water for animals and that officials are supposed to consider requests to use it for that purpose on a case-by-case basis.

His bill would require state public health officials to approve the use of recycled water for pasture animals by 2016 unless officials determine that doing so would pose health risks, in which case, the state would be required to establish uniform standards, such as additional treatment of the water before it could be used.

"We're at a point where recycled water can be used for livestock, or where we watch ranches and livestock businesses close," Levine said.

Today's public hearing is at 2 p.m. at Petaluma City Council Chambers.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.