Healdsburg may expand water reuse program

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Healdsburg is moving toward expanding the use of its recycled wastewater as more grape growers express interest in its use for vineyard irrigation.

The City Council has taken an initial step of expanding the area where Healdsburg delivers reclaimed water, requiring a new two-mile pipeline from the wastewater treatment plant to serve approximately 600 acres between Westside Road and the Russian River to the south.

Some vineyard managers there are eager to get access to the water, and Healdsburg — which has been under pressure for years to reduce discharges of that water into the Russian River during summer months — is ready to oblige, to the point of footing the approximate $500,000 construction cost of the pipeline.

“We’re under a mandate to not release water — tertiary, highly treated water — into the Russian River five months of the year,” Mayor Tom Chambers said Friday. “We need to come up with various ways to achieve that and one way is to provide water for irrigation to vineyards interested in doing so.”

Councilman Gary Plass said some people have questioned why Healdsburg is giving the water away.

“We have a need to get rid of the water. We can put the water to good use, and we want to be good neighbors,” he said. “At a time of drought, we have a commodity that can help them save their crops and keep their livelihood alive,” he said of local grape growers.

The city already has a couple of pipelines from its Foreman Lane sewage treatment plant that can deliver reclaimed water to about 400 acres of vineyards, including Syar vineyards to the south, and Ferrari-Carano vineyards to the north.

The City Council at its March 21 meeting decided to expand the delivery area for the wastewater, although officials still need to vote on a contract for building the new pipeline.

Despite some relief from a prolonged drought provided by the wet winter, grape growers are still concerned about long-term water security, said Healdsburg utility director Terry Crowley. He said state water regulators could restrict rights to both ground and surface water during a lengthy drought, and Healdsburg’s reclaimed water is a good alternative source for irrigation.

And some wineries are comfortable acknowledging they use recycled water to grow their grapes.

“A lot look at it as a sustainability tool they can promote their wines through,” he said.

Highly treated recycled water is permitted by the state of California for use on a variety of plants and agricultural crops, including vineyards, fruit trees, vegetables and herbs.

Using reclaimed water to offset the use of potable water has been employed for decades in Sonoma County, using pipelines that deliver recycled water to irrigate vines, hay fields, soccer fields and office parks, among other uses.

Reclaimed water from the Sonoma Valley wastewater plant has been used for years to irrigate about 6,000 acres of vineyards in the Carneros region, according to the Sonoma County Water Agency.

Crowley said despite the access some grape growers have to Healdsburg’s existing pipeline, they don’t always use the water because there is no strong incentive to do so.

While water customers in city limits are still under obligation to cut their use by 25 percent compared to 2013, “the state chose not to curtail agricultural use,” Crowley said. “They didn’t have a loss in their water use.”

Last year, Healdsburg avoided dumping 10 million gallons of reclaimed water into the Russian River. But most of that, 8 million gallons, was hauled away in trucks to construction sites, to be used for dust control and dirt compaction, according to Crowley.

Agricultural use accounted for only 1.5 million gallons of the total last year.

Programs started last year in both Healdsburg and Sonoma Valley allow residents to haul reclaimed wastewater from drive-up stations, free of charge, to be used in irrigating their gardens, lawns and ornamental landscaping.

But those uses accounted for only 124,000 gallons of reclaimed water from the Healdsburg plant, Crowley said.

The city still needs to find other ways to dispose of about 128 million more gallons that it currently discharges into a pond that flows into the Russian River.

The expansion of the irrigation program is seen as the most cost-effective method, officials said.

The city’s long-term plans call for a pipeline network that can deliver reclaimed water to parks, the golf course and school grounds.

But the $9 million to $12 million price tag is more expensive than delivering water to agricultural areas and won’t use up enough to prevent future discharges into the river.

“It would be wonderful if we could provide that service,” said Chambers, the mayor. But “it’s an enormous expense that lands on the backs of ratepayers.”

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

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