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California Wine Cities Re-Using Wastewater

Healdsburg giving treated water to grape growers; Paso Robles making plans

by Jane Firstenfeld
The Healdsburg Water Department is making municipal wastewater available for transport from the city’s wastewater treatment plant (above) to vineyard ponds used for irrigation.
Healdsburg, Calif.—Although large wineries frequently invest in systems to treat industrial waste generated by the winemaking practice, such recycled water is more often used for landscaping than vineyard irrigation. The current West Coast water shortage has prompted increased interest from utility districts that want to support agriculture by providing recycled municipal wastewater—treated sewer water—approved for vineyard irrigation.

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

The treated water is high quality and low in nitrogen. “If chlorinated, it could be drunk,” Wood 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.

He noted that recycled wastewater has been put to agricultural use for years in the Carneros district in southeastern Sonoma County. When California Gov. Brown issued his drought emergency proclamation earlier this year, “We thought that because we have the water, it would be easy,” Wood said.

The process proved longer and more arduous than local officials had expected. “Agencies need to work proactively to solve these problems,” said Wood, who is currently a candidate for the California State Assembly.

Healdsburg’s 800,000-case Rodney Strong Wine Estates, which farms more than 900 vineyard acres in 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. They have to use that water for something.”

Statewide applications
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 water utilities are WateReuse members—as are Santa Rosa and Windsor, also in Sonoma County. Smith said the type of 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.

“It’s as clear as tap water, although it might vary in color,” he said. Municipal treatment levels differ, he acknowledged. “Water from Healdsburg is at the highest level of purity,” Smith said.

Paso Robles plans ahead
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 vineyard 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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