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June 2014 Issue of Wines & Vines

California Wine Cities Re-Using Wastewater

by Jane Firstenfeld
Wastewater Reuse
Workers prepare a base slab for concrete at the Paso Robles Wastewater Treatment Plant in May. Matt Thompson, wastewater resources manager for Paso Robles, said recycling municipal wastewater is not a matter of ‘if,’ but ‘when.’ Photo from The Covello Group for the City of El Paso de Robles.

Responding to continued anxiety about looming shortages of water to irrigate vineyards in this northern Sonoma County wine hub, the Healdsburg Utilities District announced it would make treated municipal wastewater available—for free. Spigots located near the city’s sewage treatment plant will be available to fill as many as 15 private tanker trucks daily for transportation to vineyard ponds for drip irrigation systems.

“If somebody wants it, they can pick it up,” Healdsburg Mayor Jim Wood told Wines & Vines. The water is also appropriate for construction and dust-control use, he said.

Healdsburg has pipes in the ground and permission to use the recycled water for agriculture this year and next, he said. “It’s free this year. We’re still working on a long-term plan.”

Wood pointed out that Healdsburg’s economy relies on the success of its agriculture. “If we have a really dry summer, some people can supplement” their own stored or well water to sustain their crops, the mayor said.

Healdsburg’s 800,000-case Rodney Strong Wine Estates, which farms more than 900 vineyard acres in the Alexander and Russian River valleys, Chalk Hill and the Sonoma Coast, will not need to avail itself of the recycled water this year, said director of winegrowing Doug McIlroy.

But as a winegrower on his family property on Westside Road and a Healdsburg resident, “I’ve spent a lot of time on this issue. Most (growers) have stored a lot of water. Most of their reservoirs are filled. A lot of this comes from well water, but the impacts of the drought may mean more people need more water,” he said.

McIlroy praised city officials for their efforts. “Good for them to spend the year getting approval,” he said. “They cannot put it into the Russian River in the summertime, and they have to use that water for something.”

Drought concerns have put water recycling on the front burner, according to Dave Smith, managing director of WateReuse California, part of a nationwide organization promoting recycling. Smith claimed, “More than a billion gallons of treated wastewater are pumped in the Pacific Ocean each year. California would like to reduce that.”

Healdsburg and other utilities are WateReuse members—as are Santa Rosa and Windsor, also in Sonoma County. Smith said the industrial water waste generated by wine production is different than municipal wastewater, which is collected from sewers and treated to high—but not potable—levels of purity.

Sparkling wine specialist Domaine Carneros produces some 45,000 cases per year from its chateau almost astride the border of Sonoma and Napa counties. Winemaker T.J. Evans reported he’s been using tertiary treated water from the Los Carneros Water District for some years—although unlike the Healdsburg district, the water is not free. “We paid for the infrastructure, and now we pay for the water,” he said.

In 2012 the winery bought a vineyard on Ramal Road, just across the county line in Sonoma County. Evans is now developing that, and already he has signed a contract with the city of Sonoma’s water district for some of its wastewater, after inspecting the treatment plant.

The recycled water, he said, used to have a bed reputation. “Now it is crystal clear, not foamy or smelly. If you didn’t know better, you’d think it was tap water. It’s approved for use on organic vineyards,” Evans said.

In early May, the Paso Robles City Council allocated $795,000 to prepare preliminary plans to pump, pipe and treat the city’s wastewater.

Although developing the plan will take about a year, and facilities would not come on line for about five years, Matt Thompson, wastewater resources manager for Paso Robles, told Wines & Vines, “The city does intend to recycle its wastewater. It’s not ‘if,’ but ‘when.’”

Interest has been piqued with the drought, but, Thompson said, “People will always be generating wastewater.”

Recycled municipal wastewater is “perfectly safe” for vineyard use, he said. “The city wants to partner with the wine industry, and wastewater can be part of the solution.” According to a water-recycling master plan prepared for Paso Robles by AECOM Water of San Luis Obispo, Calif., more than 3,500 acres of irrigated vineyards are currently farmed in Paso Robles.

In addition to years of planning and construction, the treatment infrastructure will cost the city some $10 million to $14 million,” Thompson said. “You don’t build them overnight. Our treatment has been in place since 1920.”

As a public works project, the plant will be put out for public bids. Once the plan is approved, the city intends to search for grants and issue municipal general obligation bonds as approved by the state government, Thompson said.

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