Wastewater could quench thirst of some California farms

Waste Water Treatment PlantIt’s old news by now that many California farmers are in a tight spot this summer as their normal water supplies have dried up with the state’s extreme drought that has continued in some areas of the state for years. What’s new, however, is the creative way some farmers are dealing with the dry conditions.

In the state’s Central Valley specifically, some have turned to the wastewater treatment plant in Modesto, Calif., just a stone’s throw from some of the driest agricultural areas in the state. Here, everything that goes down the drain—from approximately 240,000 people— is becoming a new water source that many farmers are ready to buy into.

According to a recent article, normally, the wastewater is treated and then disposed of in a local river, as much as 14 million gallons a day. But now, this water could instead could be treated and disinfected with ultraviolet light and sold to farmers for use on their crops. While this process would not make the water safe to drink, according to state standards, it would be clean enough to use on crops.

The plan is to build a six-mile, $100 million pipeline to carry the wastewater to a canal that then goes to local farms. Called the North Valley Regional Recycled Water Program, this would be the largest water recycling project of its kind in the state, but it won’t be cheap, the article states.

In fact, farmers will pay four to five times normal water prices for the disinfected water, but growers like Jim Jasper are more than willing to open their wallets.

“I like to be optimistic, but without something like this, the future for my son and grandson and family — we’re into this third generation — I don’t know if we can keep our business going,” Jasper said in the article.

This water would meet about one-third of the water district’s “hardened” demand, or the minimal supply it can get by on and is causing other agricultural areas to take notice as they face their own drought shortfalls.

“There’s absolutely more potential for recycled water use in California,” Heather Cooley of the Pacific Institute, a nonprofit water think tank based in Oakland, said in the article. “California could be using two to three times more recycled water.”

However, as with many new opportunities, potential problems could be on the horizon as well. For one, the article states, keeping wastewater out of a river could impact the river itself.

“You need to understand where that water would have gone,” Cooley added. “Is it providing important environmental flows? Is it providing water to a downstream community?”

These questions are leading some in a nearby water district to protest this plan as they are worried it will reduce the flow of a local river.

However, those in favor are arguing that recycled wastewater projects are currently used in Monterey and Sonoma counties. In these settings however, urban areas are close to farm fields so the water does not need to travel far. In other parts of California’s Central Valley though, location is a problem since a lot of farms are just too far from big cities and all their wastewater —which makes it very expensive to move.

“It’s not the single silver bullet solution for agriculture,” Cooley added in the article. “Agriculture is going to have to do a lot of things to adapt to a future of less water availability.”

The project still needs several permits from the state, but if all goes well, the taps could open up in about three years.

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