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Santa Rosa orders sudden curtailment for farm irrigators after miscalculation on recycled water supply

Doug Beretta is facing a water crisis this summer that he could not anticipate.

The Sonoma County organic dairy owner typically irrigates 200 acres of hay with about 80 million gallons a year of recycled wastewater from Santa Rosa’s regional plant on Llano Road. Beretta, who first turned to recycled water nearly four decades ago as a dry-season source, jokes that during particularly dry times, he asks his city friends to "just flush your toilets twice, so I can irrigate.“

And typically for dairy farmers like Beretta, along with about 60 other local agricultural water users ‒ growers of livestock feed, wine grapes, and vegetables —it has been a reliable and cost-effective way to keep their crops growing when the rains let up. But not this year.

That’s because Santa Rosa miscalculated its stored water forecast near the beginning of the irrigation season, leading to sudden limits on water use that farmers say will cost them dearly in an already dry year.

In mid-June, the agricultural users were put on notice: There would not be enough irrigation water for all to last through the growing season, according to the city.

“We were wrong,” said Joe Schwall, the city’s deputy director of regional water reuse operations. “We thought we could manage it without allotments. We realized that with the amount of supply and the amount of production, we wouldn’t be able to supply customers through the end of the season.”

For the affected farmers, the sudden limit means they have 30% less water to irrigate what they planted in the spring with the assumption supply would be normal. The sharp reduction does not bode well for their crops.

For Beretta, who estimated last month that he would reach his allotment within days, it means dry grass, empty pastures and the need to spend tens of thousands of dollars more a month on feed for his cows, since they won’t be able to access the hay pasture he usually irrigates with recycled wastewater.

“This is the first time in 40 years that I've ever been off pasture in the middle of August,” Beretta said. “It's going to be a huge expense for us.”

In January, it seemed implausible Santa Rosa or local farmers would confront such a problem.

When the Kincade fire struck in late October, it caused significant damage to electrical infrastructure that supplied power to The Geysers, the system of geothermal power plants on the Sonoma-Lake County border. Since 2003, the geothermal fields have been recharged with water piped in from Llano Road plant, which takes in sewage from Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Cotati, Sebastopol and other unincorporated parts of Sonoma County.

While post-fire repairs at The Geysers were finished quicker than expected, the wastewater pipeline was offline for six weeks, swelling Santa Rosa’s storage ponds. City officials were bracing for the prospect of having to discharge recycled effluent into local waterways, a last-ditch move that would lower storage levels while incurring hefty environmental charges.

But those releases never happened, because the rains never came as expected — the winter turned out to be one of the driest on record in Santa Rosa. In fact, by late May, the city’s recycled water storage volume was about a quarter lower than it had ever been, according to Schwall.

In a normal year, the city’s regional wastewater plant takes in more than 7 billion gallons of effluent and, after disinfection, usually pumps more than 4 billion gallons of recycled wastewater to The Geysers geothermal plant in northern Sonoma County. Contracted farmers like Beretta take about 1.8 billion gallons annually for irrigation.

But by the end of the first six months of 2020, Santa Rosa went from having too much recycled wastewater on its hands ‒ a little over 800 million gallons, or about twice the average amount, in storage in mid-December ‒ to imposing on farmers the strict limits on water, or allotments.

The shock was especially strong because the city initially told agricultural water users, in a May 20 email, that despite the lack of winter rain, that there were no plans to impose limits on recycled water use for irrigation.

But in June, supply was dwindling faster than expected, and the city floated a quota: Farmers could expect only half as much as water as they are accustomed to, about 600 million gallons less over the course of the year.

City water officials soon decided to relax the limit to 70% of normal deliveries, a revision that came after pushback from farmers and more analysis by the city, Schwall said.

“It was in the spirit of trying to get a warning out,” Schwall said of the initial 50% limit.

The city also limited ag users’ access to the water to three days a week, which slows water use to extend the irrigation season.

The fallout for farmers is driven much by where they stand in the priority line for water deliveries. The Geysers contract with the city includes minimum amounts Santa Rosa must pump 41 miles north to the geothermal field. Urban irrigators, such as the city of Rohnert Park, also have pricey deals that ensure their supply won’t be interrupted.

Local farmers, who last year brokered a new deal with the city, have no such guarantees.

Water allotments come with the territory for agricultural users. But this year’s quotas sparked frustration among some local farmers in part due to the city’s spring communications — going from no limit in late May to a hard cap in June. The situation has farmers like Beretta thinking about alternatives.

“We built our businesses around this water,” Beretta said. “To have to go back to groundwater or go back to hay, it'll potentially put some guys out of business.”

Tawny Tesconi, the executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, lamented a deterioration in the relations between the city and the local agricultural community, who have worked together on water management issues for decades. She noted that an annual water issues meeting with the city and local farmers hadn’t happened this year due to the coronavirus pandemic and questioned why that conversation couldn’t happen virtually.

“For the past few years, we have had ongoing conversations with the City staff about this program and have felt that often our voices were not heard, or empty promises have been made,” Tesconi wrote to city officials in July. “The quality of communication, information transparency, and water usage management has been declining and has reached a critical point.”

The city’s water director, Jennifer Burke, pushed back on what she called a “disappointing and surprising” characterization in a response to Tesconi in early August.

Burke emphasized that city staff had made it clear to farmers in the May 20 email that it had been a very dry winter and that less water available for irrigation over the course of the year, even though she acknowledged the lack of allotments at that time.

“Despite the information provided regarding low storage levels,” Burke wrote to Tesconi, “irrigation demand remained higher than average” in late May and early June.

“While Santa Rosa Water cannot always provide all the water customers may desire, the water delivered to agricultural customers provides a significant contribution to the long-term health of the local agricultural community,” Burke wrote.

More than 30 agricultural water users — at least half the 60 or so who use recycled wastewater for irrigation — reached their allotted amounts by early August, according to city documents. However, from the city’s perspective, the allotments have worked to stretch the supply of stored recycled water, Schwall said.

Going forward, Schwall said, the city will try to communicate better with farmers, such as providing more regular updates about recycled water storage levels. Allotments are likely to remain be part of the city’s water management practices, he said.

The uncertainty about future rainfall makes it tricky to know whether and when to decrease flows to The Geysers and start building up water storage for the farmers, he said.

“It’s really hard to make predictions the farther away you are from the start of the (irrigation) season,” Schwall said.

Despite the inherent complications of trying to predict the fate of hundreds of millions of gallons of water, the city needs to find a way to improve its recycled water system, said Lisa Badenfort, a Board of Public Utilities member, at a BPU meeting in early August.

“I’m interested in lifting up every rock to see if there’s any solutions moving forward,” Badenfort said. "... I think there’s nobody in this situation that doesn’t want it to function as best as it can. It’s legitimately difficult.“

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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