Water agency Proposes Massive Wastewater Reuse Project

From the Healdsburg Tribune
By Barry W. Dugan, Managing Editor

Healdsburg and Alexander Valley Map

Pipes – Above is a map of the Healdsburg and Alexander Valley area including plans for recycled water pipelines (in black). The current Geysers pipeline is in red.A gigantic wastewater distribution project proposed by the Sonoma County Water Agency, if completed as planned, would be among the largest public works projects in Sonoma County history, second only to the fully completed Warm Springs Dam-Lake Sonoma project.

A draft environmental impact report/environmental impact statement released last week portends the enormity of the project: The combined EIR/EIS and accompanying appendices total nearly 1,200 pages.

The North Sonoma County Agricultural Reuse Project would consist of 112 miles of pipelines, numerous pumping stations, 19 reservoirs that could store 3.6 billion gallons of wastewater, all with a price tag of $413 million, including the cost of financing the project over 30 years.

The $413 million project is believed to be the second largest in the county’s history. Warm Springs Dam was built for $170 million in 1982, which converts to $355 million in 2006 dollars. When the hatchery and recreation facilities were completed in 1986, the price tag for the entire dam and Lake Sonoma facility was $330 million, which would be $606 million in today’s dollars.

While a source of the wastewater has not been secured, water agency officials are proposing that as much as 4 billion gallons of wastewater from the city of Santa Rosa be distributed to agricultural customers, primarily grape growers, in the Dry Creek, Russian River and Alexander valleys. The plan identifies more than 21,000 acres of vineyards in the three growing regions suitable for irrigation with the recycled water. The Santa Rosa Geysers pipeline, a 41-mile pipe that already sends 11 million gallons of wastewater to the Geysers, already contains numerous turnouts that would allow for reuse along the way. Other sources for the wastewater system could be the town of Windsor and the Airport/Larkfield/Wikiup wastewater system, which is operated by the water agency.

Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) officials are proposing the project as a way of reducing the use of groundwater and surface water in the Russian River watershed in response to federal and state regulators concerns over the impacts to the river’s fisheries, particularly salmon and steelhead.

“It does provide us with a reliable long-term method for recycled water use,” said Dave Cuneo, a senior environmental specialist with the SCWA.

“It also provides us with a long-term water supply for agricultural users, and in doing so we also obtain a reduction in the use of groundwater and surface water in the project area,? he said. ?With more water remaining in the tributaries and the main stem, it will allow more of what we call operational flexibility.”

The SCWA coordinates releases from Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma and must meet stream flow requirements in the Russian River throughout the year.

?We would have more water (in Lake Mendocino) to maintain minimum stream flows,? said Cuneo. ?And meet those requirements late in the season with a colder water source, which is beneficial to the fisheries.?

Reaction to the NSCARP has been mixed. Critics claim that the wastewater contains numerous unknown compounds that could harm the soil, groundwater and drinking water, while supporters believe that the threat of impending water scarcity necessitates recycling as much water as possible.

“I think water is going to be important for Sonoma County,” said Nick Frey, executive director of the Sonoma County Grape Commission. “It is certainly an important resource. Recycled water is being used throughout the world in all kinds of applications, including food production.”

Frey said recycled wastewater will be more widely accepted here “If people take the time to learn from the experience of many who have been using recycled water.”

Water from the Santa Rosa treatment system is treated to a tertiary level and state regulations allow its use for irrigation of crops, according to Cuneo and state water quality officials.

While the state has sanctioned the practice, there are many who question the safety and wisdom of using treated wastewater on prime vineyards. “I don’t believe the draft EIR at this point addresses those concerns about the quality of the wastewater adequately,” said Fred Corson, a Dry Creek Valley resident who has challenged the SCWA’s wastewater plans, as well as Santa Rosa’s. “I think we’re going to have to do a lot more analysis about what are the contaminants in the water … especially the data on the Santa Rosa wastewater,” he said.

Corson said Santa Rosa’s own data shows that there are between 16 and 60 milligrams per liter of Total Organic Carbons (TOC), which are “soluble organic compounds that have not been identified.? He said Santa Rosa officials ?have not chosen to analyze what is in that TOC” but other municipalities have.

“There is a lot of data on what is in typical tertiary wastewater effluent that shows there are endocrine disrupting and other pharmaceutically active compounds with human health impacts at very low levels,” said Corson. Those unidentified compounds are referred to as “emerging contaminants.”

Cuneo acknowledged that water quality concerns “are an issue that comes up from the public occasionally …. we know there is an ongoing issue discussing what are commonly known as emerging contaminants … there is no indication we have received that it is a problem one way or another. We take our cues from state regulatory agencies and at this time this is an allowable use of recycled water.”

Frey said that “there is nothing definitive” regarding the effects of treated wastewater on crops or soil. “Just because you can detect something at parts per million, or parts per billion, doesn’t mean it is going to accumulate or have any biological activity.”

Don McEnhill, director of the Riverkeeper group that monitors Russian River water quality, said ?Any impact is going to load the soil over decades … there is no way someone can say taking clean groundwater and replacing it with wastewater is not going to affect the soil. There will be an impact,? he said.

In addition, McEnhill said, “The big elephant in the room is unidentified compounds in the wastewater …. the reality is that when you look at the facts nobody has done any test plots on what this wastewater does to grapes. Nobody knows what the implications for grape quality are … if I was a winemaker I would be concerned about what the end result was on the quality of my grapes. Is this going to turn my $100 bottle of wine into a $20 bottle?”

Frey said he expects the reception among growers to vary when it comes to using recycled water on vineyards.

“A lot of growers are interested in it and ultimately as there becomes more and more competition for water, particularly with the endangered species act, that is going to affect a lot of people’s view,” he said.

While most people had yet to wade through the hundreds of pages of environmental documents, it is clear that water quality is emerging as a leading issue. Katie Wetzel Murphy, the vice president of the Alexander Valley Association and member of a longtime winegrowing family, said “The quality of the water is the number one issue we need to be proactive on.?

She is a member of the wastewater subcommittee of the AVA and said the level of contaminants in the water being proposed for irrigation is of concern. “I think we need to define at what levels they are in the water,” said Murphy. “I don’t think that has been done on an item by item basis. We need to find out what information is available on a long-term residual basis and what the effects will be on crops, soil and groundwater.”

She said predicting the long-term impacts could prove difficult. “It’s probably impossible to know what 100 years of using wastewater will do,” said Murphy. “Not to mention some of the new drugs or other things” that are either undetected or not yet in use.

Part of the approval process for the NSCARP involves permits from the state Regional Water Quality Control Board. Water quality engineer John Short said his agency will review the construction impacts and the water quality impacts of the project.

“Just the direct impact of constructing these huge reservoirs and piping and a lot of land disturbance … and this is one of the largest construction projects in the county … all those direct impacts will have to be looked at and mitigated,” said Short.

“The second aspect would be the impact of the irrigation and storage on groundwater,? he said. ?And we certainly are aware of the concerns of some of the folks in Alexander Valley for protection of their groundwater. That is something we will look closely at and determine what effect it has on water quality.”

Short said state standards do require testing for certain bacteria levels before tertiary wastewater can be used on crops, and most of the county’s wastewater meets those standards. “But that only goes so far,” he said. “Those standards do not address some of the issues we’re aware of with emerging contaminants that aren’t covered in the current standards … we’ve heard those concerns expressed and certainly those folks who live in the affected area have some issues with the endocrine disrupters and the antibiotics.”

Public comments on the NSCARP are due by May 18, 2007. The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, which also sits as the SCWA board of directors, will hold a public hearing on the plan on May 15 at 10 a.m. the board chambers in Santa Rosa.

A complete version of the environmental documents is available at www.scwa.ca.gov.