Follow us on: Facebook Twitter YouTube

Drought brings new attention to recycled water

Issue Date: May 18, 2016
By Kate Campbell

Agricultural demand for recycled water is increasing along with the ability to supply it. But water experts say competition for access to the resource is rising—and say they're unsure what the growing demand may mean for prices.

State water officials plan a survey of recycled water use in coming months—the first since 2009, when they estimated use of recycled water at 700,000 acre-feet. Results from the new survey could come early next year.

The State Water Resources Control Board is calling for recycled water to contribute 1.5 million acre-feet to the overall water supply by 2020 and at least 2.5 million acre-feet by 2030. Observers say the 2020 goal may be difficult to achieve, but say they're more optimistic about reaching the 2030 standard.

Given drought pressures on California water supplies, Jennifer West of WateReuse California said she expects the upcoming survey to show an increase in the amount of recycled water being used statewide since the previous survey. In 2009, researchers found agriculture used nearly 40 percent of California's recycled water supply, with landscape irrigation and groundwater recharge the next-most-popular uses.

West said the drought has increased the number of competing uses for recycled water and that negative public sentiment about its quality and use has diminished.

"Since the last survey, a lot has happened and there have been a lot of positive changes for water recycling," she said. "Funding is available now through Proposition 1 (the water bond passed by California voters in 2014). There's new technology and interest. I'm expecting the next survey will show a significant bump in all uses of recycled water."

Because of adherence to strict water quality regulations for using recycled water on food crops, this irrigation option has a long history of safety, she said.

Danny Merkley, director of water resources for the California Farm Bureau Federation, said Farm Bureau supports use of recycled water as a supplemental supply. He said institutions that furnish recycled water for irrigation should be responsible for assuring and maintaining proper quality for the intended crop uses.

"State and federal governments should do everything they can to increase supplies of freshwater, but recycled water can be an important part of our portfolio for addressing the California water crisis," he said.

Merkley noted that CFBF favors overall expansion of the available water supply through increased storage—both aboveground and underground—plus recycling, desalination and improvements in water use efficiency.

In an agreement approved last week, the city of Turlock joined the city of Modesto in a 40-year agreement to sell recycled water to the Del Puerto Water District, which provides irrigation water to about 45,000 agricultural acres on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley between Vernalis and Santa Nella.

The district relies on water delivered through the federal Central Valley Project, which cut deliveries to zero in 2014 and 2015, and to 5 percent this year.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation signed the record of decision last week for what is being called the North Valley Regional Recycled Water Program at the Del Puerto district office in Patterson, certifying the program's federal environmental documents. Del Puerto will cover the estimated $100 million construction cost, including pipelines from the treatment plants to the federal Delta-Mendota Canal for delivery to contractors.

Interim water deliveries could begin as early as this summer, with as much as 30 percent of the district's supply needs being met by 2018.

West estimated there are about 100 recycled-water projects on the drawing boards in California, all in various stages of development. Whether they will be online in time to meet the state's strategic goals under its recycled-water policy is not known at this time, she said.

Water district managers are increasingly looking at water supply options, she said, and recycled water projects can provide cities both a new revenue source and new ways to manage the discharge of treated water.

Recycled water beneficial uses vary considerably around the state, the Department of Water Resources found in its 2009 survey, and West said she expects new survey results will reveal continued diversification in the uses of recycled water.

Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition, said recycled water can come from a variety of sources, including treated urban wastewater and oilfield-produced water. No matter the source, he said, "it's required to be high quality, treated water that meets every standard set by state water quality officials."

On land north of Bakersfield, the Cawelo Water District and North Kern Water Storage District are currently working with the oil industry to use treated water on crops, Wade said.

The districts have been delivering water for more than 50 years to irrigate about 45,000 acres in Kern County, including irrigation water to about 34,000 acres of orchards, vineyards and field and row crops.

Oilfield-produced water is the byproduct of oil production, Wade said, and has been used in the growing region without any health or environmental issues.

(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.

Special Reports



Special Issues

Special Sections