Healdsburg's offer to help grape growers and farmers weather the drought by offering them reclaimed water was welcomed by the agricultural community.

But two weeks after the City Council took action in a special meeting to start making millions of gallons of highly treated wastewater available, the spigot remains turned off.

The reason: Healdsburg still has not obtained permission from state regulators to use the recycled water from its sewer plant for agricultural irrigation, or at construction sites.

"It is a regulatory environment we live in. It is challenging to deal with," Mayor Jim Wood said. "Agencies agree it's the right thing (to do), but we face a slow process."

"Knowing the caliber of the water, it shouldn't be an issue," City Councilman Garry Plass said of the delay in getting approval to use the tertiary treated water that comes out of the city's state-of-the art wastewater plant.

Two weeks ago, the city appeared poised to immediately make the recycled water available for free to haulers, despite not having the blessing of the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Reclaimed water has been used for decades in other parts of the state and Sonoma County, including Santa Rosa and Windsor, to irrigate vineyards, pastures and landscaping.

Healdsburg officials said the governor's drought proclamation in January lent new urgency and justification for using the reclaimed water, which meets the state's drinking water standards.

But advice from the city attorney made Healdsburg officials reconsider, including the possibility they could face fines and even criminal charges if they went ahead right away.

"The frustrating thing is we're being advised because we have a permit that's not fully functional we could be held criminally liable if we dispense water," Plass said.

"The Regional Board certainly has the ability to fine the city if we were to do that," said Healdsburg City Engineer Brent Salmi. "They could go as far as filing charges against certain individuals."

On Thursday, water quality regulators said they had yet to receive the city's application, known as a "categorical waiver," that would allow trucks to haul recycled water from the city's treatment plant to use for dust control and dirt compaction at construction sites.

And use of the water for vineyard irrigation and other agricultural uses is not even part of Healdsburg's requested waiver, according to Matt St. John, executive officer for the North Coast Water Quality Control Board.

"I think there's some misunderstanding as far as the city actually applying for that use from us," he said Thursday. "The city is still pulling together their application to us. We haven't even received it yet."

But Thursday evening, Mayor Wood said St. John was wrong — the application to use the water for construction purposes was submitted more than a week ago.

"We have the receipt," he said. "They don't even know what their own staff is doing."

Getting permission for agricultural use — a much larger demand for the water — is another matter entirely and the subject of a more involved permit procedure.

City officials have expressed frustration at their inability to quickly put to use up to 1 million gallons a day of treated, disinfected wastewater that is churned out of the city's treatment plant.

That water currently is discharged into a large pond that seeps into the Russian River.

Two weeks ago, city officials said they would offer it for free from a hydrant at the plant, and also begin constructing a 2200-foot-long pipeline to Kinley Drive that would make it even easier for haulers to take it away.

It followed the passage of a resolution on Valentine's Day at a hastily arranged special City Council meeting to declare a drought emergency. The resolution directed city staff to "commence the delivery of recycled water to third parties for all uses permitted by state law including, but not limited to self haulers, agricultural uses and construction site dust control."

Representatives of the agricultural industry were there to cheer the action.

Perhaps a dozen grape growers in Dry Creek and Alexander Valley then inquired about how to get their hands on the highly treated effluent to offset their use of potable water, according to city officials.

They wanted to fill their ponds for irrigation or frost control.

"There's a ton of people calling us," Healdsburg Utilities Director Terry Crowley said this week. "There are a lot of people interested in it."

One inquiry came from the operator of a mulch operation in Cloverdale who wanted to use up to 4 million gallons a year to mix his product.

But city officials have been forced to turn them away for now.

"We would have liked to have turned the spouts on. We don't want to do that before proper permitting," Mayor Wood said.

Although the city intended to let people begin using the wastewater immediately, "after further consultation with our attorney and staff we decided it was in the best interest of the city to make sure we were completely on track with the regional board," Wood said.

The city has always intended to use recycled water from the $32 million sewer treatment plant it completed in 2008, using a planned network of pipes to nearby vineyards, school grounds and city parks.

But not everyone has welcomed the idea of having the water applied to vineyards, including some Dry Creek landowners concerned that it will seep into the aquifer and contaminate ground water.

While Healdsburg conducted environmental studies in 2005 to allow the reuse plan to go forward, the city is still in the process of submitting technical reports required by the water quality board to complete its water reclamation permit.

The reports — expected to be finished in another month — have to demonstrate the water will be applied in such a way that there isn't runoff and infiltration of ground water.

"There can be elevated nitrogen levels in treated wastewater that can be a problem for ground water," said St. John, the water quality board executive.

He noted that water treatment plants and agencies throughout California are required to get similar approvals from one of nine regional water boards, depending on where they are located.

St. John said that with the drought, there has been some discussion in Sacramento at the state water quality board about fast-tracking permits for agricultural reuse.

That couldn't happen fast enough for Healdsburg officials.

"We've jumped though 90 to 95 percent of the hoops. There's no reason we should not be able to receive some emergency permit — until the governor declares a non-emergency — to get the water to these farmers," said Councilman Gary Plass. "It makes no sense to me the longer we delay."

(You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.)