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.