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Keeping the water flowing

Clear bluish water swirls in a concrete basin off Eighth Street East, birds fly overhead and off into the distance. Brian Anderson walks along a metal railing that flanks the flowing water and takes a moment to appreciate it. This water has come a long way – from toilets, showers, garbage disposals – and now it will have a chance to be used again.

Anderson, a Sonoma County Water Agency administrator, oversees the Sonoma Valley Wastewater Treatment Plant on Eighth Street East. Along with SCWA, and in addition to his work at the treatment plant, Anderson helps maintain water quality for, and distributes water to, more than 600,000 people from Sea Ranch to Marin. Currently, SCWA has 14 customers who use recycled water; 300-acre feet for pasture irrigation, 1,095 acre-feet for vineyard irrigation and 5 acre-feet for construction. Through a partnership with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the water agency also sends approximately 15 acre-feet of recycled water to the Napa-Sonoma Marshes Wildlife Area at the northern edge of San Pablo Bay.

The plant moves through 2.5 million gallons of water a day, Anderson said. But this past dry year, there has been less water and more demand, with agricultural producers looking for more water sources. From Jan. 1 to Dec. 31 in 2013, 850 million gallons of wastewater were pumped and treated at the recycled water treatment plant. In 2012, 1.2 billion gallons went through.

With the statewide drought and local farmers and vineyard workers looking at smaller crops this year, recycled water is viewed as a valuable alternative to using precious potable water for irrigation. Recent SCWA studies done with the United States Geological Survey, show groundwater supplies in the Sonoma Valley are declining, especially in deep aquifers. And, saltwater intrusion on groundwater basins that dip below or just at sea level, increase water salinity and make it undrinkable.

Kevin Booker, a water agency principal engineer, says the Sonoma Valley plant currently produces 4,500 acre feet of recycled water a year to irrigate the southern part of the Valley, where the district has pipelines. The water, which is not potable, is becoming more and more used for vineyard and pasture irrigation. Recycled water users pump the water onto their properties from SCWA’s pipeline, or truck it in.

This year, the water agency received more calls from existing recycled water users, looking to ensure their supplies, and interested potential users who want to know when the resource will be made available in their area.

“It’s a drought-resilient water method,” Booker says, adding people who are not using recycled water have little to no option in a drought, with depleted reservoirs and declining groundwater supplies.

Water travels through the sanitation facility in a complex, scientific process, through a system of pumps and retaining pools, or basins. The plant, Anderson explained, takes in wastewater from Sonoma and up to Glen Ellen. Raw sewage is filtered, with solid waste and debris removed, then goes through a biological process in which bacteria helps to rid the water of nitrogen through a continuous 28-day cycle, with more water from the initial stage pumped in during that time. The goal, he explained, is to get this water to as neutral a state as possible by controlling the amount of microbes that are present and having the bacteria do the work of eating away the contaminants.

Kent Gylfe, a principal engineer at the water agency, points out this recycled water is not “graywater,” or untreated wastewater from bathtubs, showers, sinks or washers. The recycled water processed at the Eighth Street East plant is water from any of these graywater sources and from other contaminated sources, like toilets, that is treated through a complex process to a higher quality.

The water is also disinfected with chlorine, and sulfur is added. Anderson says he does not like to use chemicals, but adds state-mandated chemicals to the water to remove copper, nickel and mercury that enter the water through many people’s pipes.

A Sonoma native and a water agency veteran, Anderson is always looking for new and innovative ways to improve the water management system, especially recycling wastewater at the plant. Last year, Anderson saved $75,000 because of the revised recycling and monitoring process he implemented at the plant 2 years ago. “I’m not afraid to test things – it’s an innovative process and the more education that goes around gives us the ability to make new things,” he said, noting he travels to water treatment plants and water agencies throughout the country to consult with industry peers.

“California is at the front of the pack in terms of recycled water and water systems,” he said, “and I’m working to make the water agency a leader, too.” The Bay Area, he explained, is known for its innovation and dedicated funding to support agencies.

Jim Haire, who owns vineyards throughout the Carneros region, has been using recycled water for more than five years because he feels like it’s “the smartest thing to do.” Haire uses 100 percent recycled water on 60 acres of one of his vineyard properties, and is looking at the possibility of using it at one of his other properties further north where the dry year has left a reservoir low.

“Rather than pump it from the ground, I use (recycled water) because I feel it is a benefit to agriculture and because it leaves the potable water for the homes and the animals.”

Haire, whose vineyards run off a drip irrigation system, like most vineyards in the area, says it is easy and relatively cost-effective for him to pump the tertiary water onto his property. He says there are a few extra things he has to do to use the recycled water, including tweaking the water to make it better for growing – this is not unique to recycled water users, as many vineyards add sulfites or minerals to water for better fruit – and putting signage up to indicate recycled water is being used. He also pays a small fee. “For vineyards and crops,” he says, “the small fee is a manageable cost.”

First District Supervisor Susan Gorin says recycled water is becoming even more so a point of focus as the county and agricultural producers look to the future in the midst of the drought. “What we are experiencing this year may be critical, but I think it is more important to think about a couple of years ahead when we are not in a drought.”

She said declining groundwater tables throughout the Valley, and increased salinity, has made finding other water sources particularly important. “Reclaimed water is a resource, especially in this drought year, and more people have been looking gradually at the reuse of water or recycled water for the last decade and especially in the last year or more.”

Gylfe said the water agency is looking at using recycled water at Sonoma Valley High School to irrigate the lawns. Two years ago, the agency completed a pipeline that runs northerly and extends up to Watmaugh Road, Gylfe said. SCWA is looking to extend that pipeline up to Fifth Street East and out to Denmark Street.

The pipeline, he said, would not be exclusively for the high school, with access available to interested agricultural users and landscapers. Sonoma Valley Oaks Park, tucked in the neighborhood behind the high school, is also a potential recipient of recycled water from the new pipeline. “Right now,” Gylfe said, “the park uses drinking water to irrigate its lawns; we want to conserve the drinking water and use water from the new pipeline.”

The agency is just entering the design phase, Gylfe explained, and construction will most likely not begin until 2016.

Gorin has been speaking with North Bay Agricultural Alliance President Tito Sasaki to look at more opportunities for local farmers and growers to use recycled water.

Sasaki, who lives behind the wastewater treatment facility with vineyards backing up to the site, said recycled water is being talked about more amongst growers, not only because it’s an eco-friendly option, but because it provides a reliable alternative to rain or groundwater. Growers, he notes, generally have multiple sources they draw water from, including rainwater collected in reservoirs and groundwater pumped through wells. But a dry year and increased concern over declining groundwater, particularly in deep aquifers, has some agricultural producers looking for a more stable supply through alternatives like recycled water.

“In a finite water universe, it is natural to look at recycled water,” Gorin said. Gorin hopes this drought will put further emphasis on the need for smarter water use and will spur not only household, but also industry change, in terms of water use and reuse. “We are going to continue to grow (as a society) ... and to sustain some growth,” she said, “we are going to have to make better use of resources for our children and our children’s children.”