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Stopgap efforts aim to ease water shortages

Issue Date: May 21, 2014
By Kate Campbell
A new, purple hydrant outside the city of Healdsburg water treatment facility offers recycled water free to farmers who sign up to take supplies by tank truck. Officials say the recycled water will augment irrigation supplies for about 25,000 acres of vineyards.
Photo/Kate Campbell
Recycled water from a purple hydrant outside the city of Healdsburg Water Reclamation Facility allows farmers and builders to fill tank trucks for use in irrigation and dust control.
Photo/Kate Campbell

Farmers and water agencies throughout California are turning to the "Three Ts"—water transfers, trades and treated wastewater—as they try to fill some of the supply gaps caused by drought and resulting water shortages.

In farming communities around the state, neighbors are helping each other, for example by running pipes from more productive wells to a neighbor's farm. Late-season rains improved the possibility for water transfers among water districts. More regions are delving into making treated municipal wastewater available for irrigation.

"It's definitely an 'all-hands-on-deck' approach to an emergency situation," California Farm Bureau Federation Water Resources Director Danny Merkley said. "Some of these stopgap efforts may help farmers prevent orchards or vineyards from dying. We have been encouraging state regulators to remove bureaucratic barriers to short-term water supply plans, while keeping ourselves focused on the continuing need for long-term water storage projects."

In one new initiative, the Sonoma County city of Healdsburg has moved ahead with plans to make 1 million gallons a day of treated wastewater available for vineyard irrigation and construction uses. Efforts to make the water available began in mid-February, and the first deliveries through two 6,600-foot pipelines began last week. A new, purple hydrant outside the city treatment facility offers free water to farmers who sign up to take supplies by tank truck.

The city estimates the current supply will augment irrigation for about 25,000 acres of vineyards.

Healdsburg Mayor Jim Wood told people gathered to celebrate the treatment plant's first transfers to tank trucks that gaining the necessary permits for the project "turned out to be a lot harder than we thought." Wood said officials worked hard to finalize the project "in an amazingly short amount of time."

The chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, Felicia Marcus, praised the Healdsburg project as an example of local leadership backed up by the work of the regional water board.

"To make recycled water more readily and easily available for other appropriate agricultural and outdoor uses, the state board has proposed a general permit to allow recycled water projects to opt into, or enroll, in a pre-permit program," Marcus said, adding that the new permit program is scheduled for adoption in the first week of June.

There currently are about 250 water recycling plants operating statewide, with more planned for the future. About half of all treated wastewater produced in the state is used for irrigating crops, with additional projects in the planning stages.

For example, the North Valley Regional Recycled Water Program would provide recycled water to the Del Puerto Water District, on the west side of the San Joaquin River, by providing up to 59,000 acre-feet of recycled water a year from the cities of Turlock and Modesto. Local officials say this project would likely not come online for about two more years.

The city of Escondido, which is surrounded by avocado and citrus groves, as well as high-value nursery operations, plans to spend $285 million during the next 15 years to install infrastructure to treat and deliver all its wastewater for irrigation.

"Water recycling will certainly be part of the solution for California's long-term water problems, but farmers who use recycled water should not forfeit their existing, long-term water rights," Farm Bureau's Merkley said, "and the state's water portfolio must also include a commitment to build new storage facilities, both above and below ground, to add the flexibility our current water system lacks."

Water transfers can add short-term flexibility to the system, he added, noting that some transfers appear to be underway this spring to bring partial supplies to certain water-short farming regions.

For example, the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority in the San Joaquin Valley said it has agreements to buy as much as 85,000 acre-feet of water from eight Sacramento Valley irrigation districts.

Among those districts, the Anderson-Cottonwood Irrigation District in Shasta County said it plans to sell up to 3,500 acre-feet of its federal Central Valley Project water to the authority at $500 an acre-foot. The district is ready to begin transferring water, but approvals from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation are still needed.

At the same time, the Modesto Irrigation District said last week it's making it easier for farmers within the district to buy and sell water among themselves. The practice is used widely in irrigation districts throughout California to increase water supply flexibility, but MID officials said local growers still have many details to work out before their new water sharing program starts flowing smoothly.

"People are doing the best they can with the limited water supplies this year, but it won't be enough for many farmers and rural communities that will still face crop failures, job losses and severe economic hardship," Merkley said. "This is going to be a tough year for many people in many parts of California. We hope we can avoid such severe water shortages in the future by investing now in new storage plus recycling, desalination and other strategies to move our water system into the 21st century."

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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