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Don't Waste the (Waste) Water

Local agriculture sees new value in Santa Rosa's effluent

By Bruce Robinson

If Santa Rosa's treated wastewater is a valuable resource that should be put to beneficial use, then the beneficiaries of that reuse should be willing to shoulder a share of the associated costs. With that as their basic premise, two representatives of the Sonoma County wine industry are advancing a proposal that would commit local agriculture to participate in a "reuse system" that could significantly reduce the public costs in developing a workable, long-term regional wastewater disposal program.

"There's a fundamental rightness to reusing this water," said Laurence Sterling, an attorney whose family owns Iron Horse Vineyards near Forestville, "but you can only get so much money out of ratepayers to pay for rightness. You're not going to get the City Council to go along with a very expensive program just because it's the right thing to do."

Sterling and Bob Anderson, of United Winegrowners for Sonoma County, have quietly been canvassing selected members of the local agriculture community to gauge their willingness not only to make use of the reclaimed water, but to provide pipelines and on-site storage themselves, thereby reducing the infrastructure costs of the regional project. Sterling and Anderson predict that, by distributing the wastewater to the many areas that want it and utilizing the existing reservoirs at the farms, the need for a huge centralized storage basin can be greatly reduced or possibly even eliminated. "If you don't need a huge dam, boom!--you've cut $60 million out of the project," Sterling crowed.

From the agriculture end, the concept has not been a hard sell. "We are interested in wastewater," said Angelo Sangiacomo, a grape grower with vineyards in both the Sonoma Valley and the Lakeville flats. "We'd be willing to pay a reasonable amount to get it." Moreover, he continued, "there are other growers in the area who are interested, too."

Although the reclaimed water is expected to be used primarily for irrigation, grape growers can reap additional benefits from it, including frost protection, washing the vines to prevent mildew, and watering cover crops between the vines, such as mustard, fava beans, oats, or clover. With such multiple uses, vineyards could easily absorb far more than the one-half acre foot per year that Santa Rosa has used in its calculations, Sterling concluded.

Furthermore, Anderson added, the timing of those uses fits neatly with the city's peak needs. "They need to get rid of the water the most in October, and that's when the vineyards can use it the most."

"We're certainly interested in that, very interested," said Santa Rosa assistant city manager Ed Brauner. "If there are a significant number of people that could put up a significant amount of storage, we could bring down the cost, but it needs to be pretty large." A pilot project, to be built by Gallo near Cotati, will have a reservoir capable of holding 80 million gallons, but Brauner cautioned, "That does not have a significant effect on our long-term costs."

Paul Vossen, agriculture specialist at the UC Cooperative Extension office, says there are strong economic incentives for west county apple growers to seek out the water. "We have data that show very clearly," he said, "that you can at least double the yield of irrigated vs. non-irrigated apples," plus get bigger fruit, which draws a better price per ton. Also, the introduction of ample water to the orchards that have been dry-farmed for generations would allow the planting of cover crops between the trees, reducing erosion and maintenance costs. And, with the orchards profitable again, the pressure to subdivide portions of them would be greatly diminished. Vossen predicted that apple growers and other farmers will gradually embrace the idea of using the reclaimed water, once they see the benefits demonstrated in actual practice.

At the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, Executive Director Judy James said voluntary participation in a reuse system could be a strong positive alternative to the threats of condemnation that the city has been using so far. "If people are stepping up to the plate and saying, 'Yes, we will incur this cost to get the water,' and it's all voluntary and they're not being told they will lose their land or they will have to use so many gallons of water above their needs, then we're all for it. I would think that would be a very workable solution, especially if [the farmers] can justify the cost with increased crop values."

Currently, the Santa Rosa plains farmers who irrigate with treated wastewater are paid by the city to do so, and are also required to use predetermined amounts of the effluent, regardless of their actual agricultural water needs.

Sterling and Anderson stepped forward with their reuse system concept after a host of Sonoma County interest groups made a collective statement last week denouncing the "misleading cost figures" recently made public about the wastewater disposal options under study by Santa Rosa. The group, which calls itself the Stockholders' Consensus on Reuse, or SCOR, includes 28 members representing environmentalists, farmers, and agriculture, business, and planning professionals and has been quietly meeting twice a month since last June.

"After six months of intensive study, we are convinced that this region is going to face a serious water crisis within the next 20 years," said Santa Rosa attorney Bill Malliard, "and that the use of reclaimed water from the city of Santa Rosa is at least part of the answer to avoiding that crisis. It is bad long-range planning to throw it away." Malliard dismissed the high costs being circulated for the various potential wastewater projects as "engineering for the courtroom, not for the building of economically viable projects."

"Remember, land with water is much more valuable than land without water. Sonoma County could rival Napa in production and quality if there were sufficient water," added south county rancher Tom Bachman. "In this county's open spaces, you can provide water and grow crops, or you can throw the water away and grow homes."

Sterling, a candidate for 5th District supervisor who also attended the SCOR session, said their concerted call for expanded reuse prompted his efforts to put together a strong proposal with formidable political support to present to Santa Rosa's policymakers. "We've got to deliver a strong message to the decision-makers that this will work, and we've got to hand it to them on a silver platter," he said. "Then the pressure is on them not to turn it down."

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From the Dec. 21-27, 1995 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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© 1995 Metro Publishing and Virtual Valley, Inc.

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