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Farmers question bill offering treated wastewater to cows

  • Cattle graze on dry fields, amended by alfalfa hay or silage off Bodega Highway near Petaluma, Monday Dec. 2, 2013. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2013

Organic dairy farmers greeted proposed legislation to use treated wastewater for livestock consumption with skepticism Thursday, saying it risks the health of their animals and could jeopardize their businesses.

"I'm not going to risk our animals or our customers to an idea that's not tested," said Albert Straus, president of Straus Family Creamery in Marshall.

Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, authored AB 2071 ostensibly to provide drought relief to California ranchers as supplies of potable water dwindle from lack of rain. But Levine mainly heard doubts about his proposal at a public hearing Thursday at Petaluma City Hall.

Straus spoke for many farmers in attendance when he said he felt his cows would be used as "guinea pigs" to test whether treated wastewater is safe for consumption.

Petaluma dairyman George McClelland said recycled water "might be a great thing." But he said he's not inclined to let his cows drink it.

The risk was too much for his dairy and his family, McClelland said. "We've been dairying since 1938," he said.

McClelland was on the panel of farmers, veterinarians, water resource managers and public health representatives invited to speak Thursday.

Advocates for greater use of treated wastewater view it as an untapped source of drought relief for California's farmers, who are staring down the possibility of losing animals if enough rain doesn't materialize between now and summer.

Some farmers already use recycled water for livestock consumption, including operations in Sonoma County. Under a 25-year-old arrangement, the city of Santa Rosa 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 points to widespread confusion over whether current regulations already allow for what Levine is seeking with the legislation. The state's public health agency and regional water quality control boards have regulations pertaining to recycled water, but none that specifically address using it as drinking water for animals. Some water providers have interpreted that to mean the practice is allowed.

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