Healdsburg looks to expand use of recycled wastewater

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The persistent drought has put a new emphasis on using more recycled water for irrigation, a practice that has long been allowed for some lawns, vineyards, golf courses and parks in Sonoma County, but isn’t spreading fast enough for officials in one city.

Even though highly treated reclaimed water has been used for decades in Sonoma County to grow hay and grapes and keep office parks and sport fields green, officials in Healdsburg are finding it frustratingly slow to expand their recycled water program.

With residents and businesses under state pressure to cut back further on potable water consumption, city officials want to offer an alternative for keeping lawns and gardens growing by having people use the “near-drinkable” water produced at the city’s sewage treatment plant.

The idea is to have residents and landscapers haul away that water, similar to established programs in communities like San Ramon and Dublin, where people come to fill everything from one-gallon jugs to 300-gallon containers and take the recycled water back to irrigate yards.

Healdsburg also wants to use the water to irrigate some parks, the municipal golf course and cemetery.

But getting permission from the North Coast Regional Water Quality Board is an overly cumbersome process in the view of Healdsburg officials, who need to prepare and submit environmental and engineering documents to show the water is safe for expanded irrigation.

“Recycled water is a huge resource and we’re just squandering it at this point,” Mayor Shaun McCaffrey said last week of the delay caused by the hoops the city must jump through in the permitting process.

City officials anticipate eventually getting approval to expand the recycled water program, but probably not until July at the earliest.

The matter is made all the more urgent by tighter irrigation restrictions that are being proposed to meet the conservation targets imposed by the state. Instead of allowing irrigation every other day — the current rule in Healdsburg — city officials are recommending outdoor watering only be allowed two days a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays. The proposal is up for action at Monday night’s City Council meeting and if approved would go into effect immediately.

Healdsburg is under orders from the state to conserve water by 28 percent compared to 2013. City officials expect that to be revised to 24 percent, because the state didn’t consider the water Healdsburg supplies to the unincorporated area of Fitch Mountain, which skewed the calculation.

Using recycled water for irrigation is seen as a major way to preserve the potable supply, especially during summer months when 50 percent or more of household water can go toward parched landscaping.

Employing recycled water for agriculture is another way to help preserve groundwater and river flow, officials say.

After butting heads with water regulators last year, Healdsburg eventually received permission to use the reclaimed water from its treatment plant for two growing seasons, to irrigate up to 25,000 acres of vineyards in the Alexander, Dry Creek and Russian River valleys. The water also can be sprayed at construction sites and the nearby Syar gravel plant to keep down dust.

Some vineyards get the water through a pipeline to the wastewater treatment plant, although some of it is brought in by tanker trucks.

But expanding the program to bring the recycled water to turf and ornamental landscaping involves more bureaucratic approval, to show there is no potential impact to ground and surface water and that public health is protected.

On Friday, a North Coast water quality official said the agency supports Healdsburg’s program, but needs to ensure all the requirements are met.

“The state and all agencies do support the use of recycled water in these times of such severe drought and we want to do everything we can to expedite this request,” said Mona Dougherty, senior water resource control engineer.

She said that the expanded use will mean the public comes into greater contact with recycled water. Among other things, state regulators need to make certain the disinfection process is reliable and the water doesn’t carry pathogens that could make people sick.

But Healdsburg officials say the state already has plenty of studies on the safety and quality of the water from its modern, tertiary treatment plant, which also uses ultraviolet light for disinfection, like other facilities in the area.

Santa Rosa and Windsor’s sewage plants have similar levels of treatment and use recycled water for lawns, for example.

“They’ve received technical reports and studies from other agencies,” said Healdsburg utilities director Terry Crowley. “These reports are largely the same.”

“Every time you have a different use, you have to update all these documents,” he said. “You reinvent the wheel. It’s not the most effective way to go about this.”

He called Healdsburg’s effluent “very, very clean water,” probably cleaner than water in the Russian River.

The only reason the recycled water doesn’t meet drinking water standards is that chlorine is not added, but Crowley said the city will begin chlorinating next week to improve the quality of water that can become stagnant in the pipeline when no irrigation is taking place.

The treatment plant churns out about 1 million gallons a day of recycled water. But the current limited irrigation project consumes only 1 to 4 million gallons a month, according to Crowley.

Most of the recycled water gets placed into a basalt pond that seeps into the Russian River, but there is a long-term goal to end discharges into the river.

City officials foresee plenty of demand for the recycled water, with some residents even altering their irrigation systems to disconnect house plumbing and connect to a tank holding the water, with deliveries made by landscaping companies or entrepreneurs.

But other plants have gone through an application and “done their homework to meet requirements,” said Dougherty.

“We are prepared to authorize Healdsburg too,” she said. “We just need them to follow the steps in the laws.”

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

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