After months of delay, Healdsburg finally has approval to use reclaimed water from its sewer treatment plant to irrigate vineyards in a wide swath beyond the city.

The program, intended to offset the use of potable water during the drought, will allow for the irrigation of up to 25,000 acres in the Alexander, Dry Creek and upper Russian River valleys.

"There will be trucks ready to take the water beginning Tuesday, at 10 a.m.," said Mayor Jim Wood.

The near-drinkable water can only be used for drip irrigation of vines and not frost control. Its use will be subject to monitoring to make sure there is no runoff, or potential infiltration of groundwater, something that has concerned some landowners in Dry Creek.

Final approval came Tuesday from the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board.

The water is free — at least for this year — but "there are a lot of conditions for anyone who wants to use the water," Wood said.

Initially, city officials estimate 10 to 15 trucks daily will haul the water away from a couple of spigots near the city's treatment plant, including from a recently extended pipeline to Kinley Drive.

But with the state Water Resources Control Board poised to possibly curtail the water rights of farmers and other users on the Russian River above Healdsburg due to the drought, demand could spike.

"If the Resources Board does curtail rights, our phone will be ringing," Healdsburg Utilities Director Terry Crowley said Wednesday.

"We wanted to make sure water is available to whoever needs it. It will be a difficult summer to get through. This water will be a critical resource," he said.

Crowley said the recycled water could make the difference between grape growers having vines next season, and having none.

"Our water is good, and ready to go. We can potentially be lifesavers to our grape and agricultural industry," City Councilman Gary Plass said.

Healdsburg in mid-February was ready to begin providing the highly-treated water to agricultural users, as well as for dust control and soil compaction at construction sites.

Healdsburg officials believed Gov. Jerry Brown's drought proclamation in January lent justification to immediately using the reclaimed water, which meets the state's drinking water standards.

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

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 without the approval of the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Water quality officials wanted assurances that the water would be applied in a way that it would not infiltrate groundwater.

They said there can be elevated nitrogen levels in treated wastewater, for example, that can present a problem.

But Mayor Wood said a lot of the delay seemed to be "procedural" and the city had always planned to monitor how the water was applied.

He appealed to state Assemblyman Wes Chesbro, D-Arcata, and the governor's office, which he said helped expedite the approval of the recycled water project.

Healdsburg conducted environmental studies in 2005 to demonstrate the safety of the irrigation program planned on vineyards closer to the treatment plant, as well as for shipping it in a future pipe network to use the effluent on the city golf course, in parks and on school grounds.

Currently, the treated, disinfected water from the sewage plant is discharged into a large pond that seeps into the Russian River. Healdsburg officials are under order to end the discharges during the dry months.

But the state wanted more assurances regarding Healdsburg's plan to make the water available for agriculture over a wider area.

Crowley said the city will test the quality of the water provided to vineyards on a regular basis for levels of nitrates and total dissolved solids and also conduct site inspections to make sure the recycled water is correctly applied. "Everyone will know what's put on the ground," he said.

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