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By Paula Harris
A DISTANT ROAR rapidly becomes louder as a convoy of 15 tractors, complete with police escort and driven by smiling jean-clad farmers, rumbles into downtown Santa Rosa on an overcast Tuesday afternoon, all to the cheers of curious onlookers.
The vehicles are decorated with various signs: "You Can't Make Milk from Steam," "Water: Don't Dump It Down a Hole," and "Drought Happens." The tractor troops line up in precise formation in the Santa Rosa City Hall parking lot. Their mission: to persuade councilmembers to hold off on a plan to pipe up to 2 billion of gallons of treated Santa Rosa wastewater each year across their land through a 34-mile pipeline to a geologically active geyser near Alexander Valley.
Instead, the farmers want the water recycled to irrigate crops.
"We wanted to make a presence, make a statement, but the right statement," says Mill Creek Winery owner and tractor rally organizer Bill Kreck. "I'm really pleased with the turnout."
Adds Rue French, a longtime advocate of using treated wastewater for irrigation: "This brought tears to my eyes. This is a countywide representation."
On the day the City Council was set to make a final decision on a controversial issue that has consumed 13 years and $20 million in studies, angry local farmers rode into town. Councilwoman Pat Wiggins, an advocate for ag reuse, says she was surprised to see the farmers' last-minute rally. "It would have been helpful for advocates of agricultural reuse if the outpouring had happened during the process," she says.
"But it's not rocket science to know agriculture is our biggest industry and can use that water."
Still, the show of agricultural force wasn't enough to sway the council, which--after a five-hour, standing-room-only meeting attended by some 200 people--voted 5-2 to approve a plan recommended by the Board of Public Utilities to inject half of the city's wastewater into The Geysers for the next 30 years. A consortium of geothermal companies will contribute $50 million toward the cost of the $132 million alternative-energy project. The cost to city ratepayers for financing the city's share of the project is expected be $6 a month. The plan was one of six options considered by the board, including increased dumping of wastewater into the Russian River.
Outraged farmers and conservation groups promise to sue to stop the geyser project.
Some farmers claim that they had a solution for an all-agricultural, open-space, and urban reuse program all along, but that the BPU didn't listen. And, according to a report issued by the Sonoma County Farmlands Group, the city could reap profits from the ag-reuse plan, whereas the geyser project would generate rewards only for the energy consortium. Kreck says the report is based on research conducted by city and county officials and reviewed by the Sonoma County budget analyst. It found that the ag-reuse plan would result in a net gain of $20.9 million over 30 years, whereas the geyser plan would end up costing the city $23 million over the life of the program.
"The out-of-pocket cost of $70 million is about the same to ratepayers, whether the option is The Geysers or ag reuse, but over a 20-year life [the ag-reuse option] would only cost $3 million in maintenance to the pipeline because there's no rise in elevation," says Kreck. "Plus, studies show that water increases productivity, which leads to more crops, [more revenue for farmers], and more sales tax to local government. The city and county would get $16 million to $20 million in taxes if the water was left in the ag community rather than going down a hole."
Several other local farmers agree. "We're here and we think we can provide a project that makes sense, and we want them to give us a chance to do that," says Ed Grossi, a Penngrove farmer who grows organic vegetables and fruit. He has supported water reclamation for 10 years. "There would be a diverse use of water--for grapes, orchards, dairies, not just one commodity. It's beneficial to the county to have a diverse [economic] base."
UNDER THE AG-REUSE PLAN, farmers would donate the land and the city would pipe water to small ponds. Farmers then would build a distribution network to create access to water at a series of regional sites.
"I think [the city] should keep agriculture as an option," adds Grossi. "They need a backup. The Geysers will take a minimum of four years to put in place. Let's keep ag as a backup and have a fallback position if the geyser plan fails."
The geyser alternative, which had so far had little opposition, may now be jeopardized by looming long and contentious litigation. "If you adopt the plan currently designed, we have no alternative but to oppose it," William Payne, who represents the Madrone chapter of the national Audubon Society, told the council. The proposed pipeline route cuts through the 1,400-acre Macaymas Mountain Sanctuary at the north of Alexander Valley.
"They plan to put two big and noisy pumping stations at the Forever Wildlife Preserve there. This is headed for the Supreme Court--and how long is that going to take?" asks Kreck. "If the BPU thought they had a quick fix [with the geyser option], they're wrong because they're going to deal with the mother of all lawsuits."
In addition, representatives from the Alexander Valley Association and the Alexander Valley School District say they have 18 concerns, specifically about noise and visual impacts of the proposed pumping stations and two-story towers, but have received no significant response from the BPU.
"You fail to address the issues concerning residents," Les Perry, an attorney representing the Alexander Valley Association, told the council on Tuesday. "You're proposing an industrial project in their rural environment." The association also vows to sue the city, unless changes are made to the plan.
Field Stone Winery owner John Staten, representing eight wineries on Highway 128, says the wineries would lose $160,000 a month during the construction project ."We'd be moving to a confrontational situation," he warns.
Some critics have also expressed seismological concerns because of the "unproven technology of injecting water into dried-up steam fields." The pipeline would cross at least two active earthquake faults "Even with check valves, if there's a major break, there will be a lot of water," admits Santa Rosa Assistant City Manager Ed Brauner.
OTHER OBJECTIONS to the geyser plan include cost overruns, since the steel pipes would need to run along high elevations and undulating roads, and deterioration of the infrastructure of The Geysers.
Meanwhile, farmers are disappointed with the outcome. "It's really unfortunate--ag may have lost a golden opportunity," says west county dairy farmer Art Lafranchi. "Litigation is a virtual certainty. Ag reuse appeared to be the only solution that generally had acceptance. Now the city is putting all its eggs in one basket. I think ag could be a permanent solution."
Councilwoman Noreen Evans says farmers are frustrated because many have been trying to work with city hall for years and feel rebuffed. "The economic impact of what they are proposing is so much greater than The Geysers; it will be several years before the geyser plan is operational. Something should be done in the meantime with the water. Plus, The Geysers is only a 20-year project--we've already spent almost 20 years looking at this, and agriculture will still be here in 20 years."
The BPU next week will begin considering how to limit the noise and visual impacts of the disposal project and will seek ways to ensure that at least some of the wastewater is set aside for irrigation. Opponents say that, if there are no written guarantees addressing their concerns, they will start legal proceedings against the city in 30 days.
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From the January 29-February 4, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
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