Healdsburg giving recycled water away for free

It will help keep gardens growing and lawns from going brown. And it’s free.

In a first for Sonoma County, Healdsburg has obtained permission for people to haul highly treated recycled water from its sewer treatment plant and use it on vegetable gardens and ornamental landscaping.

With California in the grip of an epic, four-year drought, there is a push to expand the use of recycled water for irrigation, something that has been done for decades in parts of the county to grow hay and grapes and keep office parks and sports fields green.

But Healdsburg, along with an increasing number of communities, is taking it one step further with a program that allows residents to haul away reclaimed water - in this case ranging in amounts from one to 300 gallons - and use it on their turf and plants, including fruits, vegetables and herbs. The only caveat is that anything eaten be washed with drinking water prior to consumption.

There are similar reclaimed water hauling programs established in Dublin and San Ramon that have proven highly popular, with residents lining up to bring home the purified wastewater.

The Sonoma County Water Agency also is pursuing a similar programs in Sonoma Valley and at the wastewater plant that serves the county airport and Larkfield-Wikiup area. Those are expected to gain approval within the next couple of months.

And the North Marin Water District last month opened a residential recycled water fill station at its treatment plant in Novato.

“It’s a good drought response and it helps with recycled water acceptance,” said Chris DeGabriele, general manager of the North Marin District. “Some folks may be a little leery of using recycled water. This helps more people get accustomed to it. They see their neighbors using it and there’s less concern.”

Reclaimed water until now has pretty much been delivered through purple pipe networks, whether to irrigate vineyards in the Carneros region, water lawns in a Windsor subdivision, or to flush toilets at Windsor High School and River Rock Casino near Geyserville.

It’s hauled off in tanker trucks to control dust at construction sites and on logging roads and is also mixed into compost. And reclaimed water also has been employed to restore two huge salt ponds near the Napa River to marsh habitat.

But with state residents under a mandate to cut water use by ?25 percent, and many cities imposing tight restrictions on outdoor water use, it’s being eyed increasingly as a substitute for potable water in irrigating lawns and gardens, which can account for more than half of household water use in summer.

“Recycled water is essentially our only new source of water during a drought,” said Brad Sherwood, a spokesman for the Sonoma County Water Agency. “This is a fantastic way to utilize the recycled water we are producing at our local treatment plants and put it to immediate good use.”

He added that it is “an immediate offset from our Russian River water supply, which we are carefully managing during the drought.”

Healdsburg, which draws most of its municipal water from wells along the Russian River, recently cut back the days residents are allowed to water their yards and plants to two days a week. But recycled water is exempt.

“The beauty of recycled water is you use it twice, or more than twice,” said Healdsburg Mayor Shaun McCaffery. “The more we can use recycled water, the more we can offset potable water use.”

The city two weeks ago received approval from the North Coast Regional Water Quality Board for the residential trucking program, which debuts Wednesday at the city’s treatment plant at 340 Foreman Lane.

Healdsburg had to submit engineering reports and other studies to show water regulators the “near-drinkable” recycled water - which is processed through three levels of treatment and disinfected with ultraviolet light and chlorine - is safe for residents to use.

The bureaucratic delay initially frustrated city officials who wanted to start the residential hauling program earlier in the summer and believed the state already had plenty of data on the quality of the effluent after approving an earlier vineyard irrigation program.

Healdsburg Utility Director Terry Crowley said “it’s not allowed to be used as drinking water. But it’s very clean water.”

He said that if tested in a lab, it would meet federal and state drinking water standards, although it has a level of chlorine that is lower than what is typically in drinking water.

“We’re still a ways away from going directly from treatment facility to the tap,” said Matt St. John, executive officer of the North Coast Regional Water Quality Board, who said the primary concern is pathogens in the treated water.

The effluent in the residential trucking program is “good enough to allow for contact” with people, he said. “It doesn’t mean Healdsburg water has pathogens at unsafe levels. It just means regulations haven’t been established to say what would be the quality to be achieved in order to drink it.”

One of the first people in Healdsburg planning to take advantage of the program is City Councilman Gary Plass.

He doesn’t share any of the hesitancy that some may have toward using reclaimed water.

“People that want to take the time to get informed will find out there really isn’t a ‘yuck’ factor,” he said. “We’re not reinventing the wheel. Recycled water has been used throughout California forever.”

Plass last week bought a 300-gallon container to haul the water in the back of his pickup. He plans to run a hose from the container to his backyard to water a little patch of lawn, plants and his vegetable garden - tomatoes, zucchini, squash and peppers.

“I’ll use gravity, basically,” he said, describing how the water will flow from his truck to his yard. If necessary, he will use a small electric pump.

Water is heavy - a gallon weighs more than eight pounds - and the potential hassle involved with driving to the plant, filling and emptying a container isn’t going to appeal to everyone.

Still, “we’re excited about it,” said Michael Tomita, a conservation analyst in Healdsburg’s utility department. “I think it’s people who really want to make an impact in our community who will reach out and take advantage of this program.”

There is a small catch to using the water. People have to register and take a brief training, which essentially means watching a 10-minute, PowerPoint presentation on the correct use and handling of the water.

They are advised what they can’t use it for drinking, cooking, bathing, filling pools and spas, or connecting to a piped irrigation or domestic plumbing system.

Healdsburg is limiting the use of the water to customers in its own city limits and the surrounding unincorporated areas of the Dry Creek, Alexander and Russian River valleys, according to Crowley, the city’s utilities director.

While most haulers will be limited to 300 gallons at a time, they can return multiple times the same day. And commercial haulers - such as landscapers and vineyard owners- can haul away 3,000 gallons at a time from the Healdsburg plant.

City officials foresee the likelihood that landscapers will make some of the water available to their customers, and could even sell it to their clients.

As far as demand for the recycled water, Crowley said that “time will tell. Programs in the Bay Area are extremely popular.”

In the East Bay, a similar program has proven so popular one operator has had to limit water pickups to local residents.

The Dublin San Ramon Services District recently said it would only accept new users from inside its service boundaries.

When the district initiated its program a year ago, officials expected only a handful of people would take advantage of the free water. But demand was so great, averaging 100 to 150 visitors daily during the hot summer months, that they expanded the fill station’s three hose bibs to five back-in hose bibs and three “drive through” hose bibs.

They also expanded hours of operation to seven days a week.

According to the district’s Facebook page, more than ?2,500 users have taken advantage of the fill station since June 2014 and hauled away more than ?12 million gallons of irrigation water.

The city of Livermore and Central Contra Costa Sanitation District also offer similar recycled water fill stations.

In Novato, the program began in mid-July and so far has had about 50 people sign up to use the water, which is available for a few hours on Thursday and Friday evenings and on Saturday mornings.

Healdsburg initially will allow pickup of the water on Wednesdays from 8 a.m. to noon and ?4 to 8 p.m., but Crowley said the city is also looking at doing so on Saturday mornings, depending on demand.

More information on the Healdsburg program is available at 431-3128 or by contacting wastewater superintendent Rob Scates at

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said there was a similar recycling program in San Rafael. The city is San Ramon.

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