A California City’s Wastewater Is Serving to It Battle Drought

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Brad Simmons, a retired metal worker who has lived in Healdsburg, California, for 57 years, stood under a shady tree with drooping pomegranates late last year and showed off his backyard orchard. In addition to the apple, cherry and peach trees, he has packed a pear tree, two lemon trees and a centuries-old olive tree into the compact garden of his bungalow.

Of course, the small grove requires plenty of water — an increasingly scarce resource in a state that continues to struggle with a historic drought despite recent torrential rains. Still, like many of its 12,000 residents, Simmons has managed to keep much of this wine-growing community north of San Francisco looking green while halving the city’s water use since 2020.

Healdsburg benefits from an invaluable resource that irrigates gardens, trees, and vineyards: free, non-potable water produced by its wastewater treatment plant. According to city officials, the plant recycles 350 million gallons of wastewater that the city dumps and flushes each year, or just over half of its annual water use. The recycled H₂O is used in irrigation, construction and other applications that require less treatment than drinking water. This relieves pressure on regional reservoirs and wells, while attracting a broad pool of users to promote a conservation ethos, while still being able to handle the volume of treated wastewater discharged into the Russian River.

“I worry about water all the time,” Simmons said as he dragged a hose down his parched weed to a giant box filled with 275 gallons of treated water. The washer-dryer-sized containers have become a standard lawn facility in the city. “So that’s a real lifeline.”

California’s sewage projects

Currently, California treats and uses approximately 728,000 acre-feet, or approximately 18 percent of the wastewater produced annually. But the state has higher ambitions for increasing water security: New targets call for a nearly triple increase to 2 million acre-feet annually by 2030.

Supported by initiatives such as the California Water Board’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund and government support, including a $750 million grant program, several major projects are in the pipeline. Orange County, for example, is increasing the capacity of its drinking water treatment plant – already the largest in the world – to recycle 130 million gallons of wastewater per day. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is planning a new $3.4 billion recycling facility that would provide a renewable source of drinking water for 19 million Los Angeles-area customers.

For smaller communities or those with limited resources, however, a more modest approach can be just as effective, says Anne Thebo, senior researcher at the Pacific Institute, a nonprofit water conservation think tank in Oakland, California.

“The local context can really give communities flexibility in developing their water reuse plans,” she notes. Farming communities have an advantage here, she says, because many forms of irrigation don’t require treated water that’s clean enough to drink. But all communities have some flexibility in their ability to use treated wastewater, as the water used to irrigate wood or lawns may be of lower quality than that used for pasture grass such as alfalfa or raw edible crops such as strawberries and lettuce is used. Developing a water recycling plan that meets community needs can diversify a region’s water portfolio and balance overall demand.

Healdburg’s approach

When the wastewater facility was modernized in 2008, reuse was not Healdsburg’s top priority. The city had to comply with environmental regulations for discharges into the Russian River, which included maintaining a higher threshold for nutrient and pathogen removal. The $29.3 million improvement added pathogen-filtering membranes and UV light to a process that already included filtration and microbial scrubbing. The additional measure will purify the wastewater to near-potable quality and make it clean enough to be discharged into the 1,485-square-mile watershed.

But even at this quality, regional water authorities limit discharge to October through mid-May, when rain normally swells the river volume and reduces the risk of adverse impacts. In the remaining months, “we have to think about what we’re going to do with it,” says Healdsburg’s water and wastewater engineer Patrick Fuss. This became the key challenge and eventual success of the Healdsburg program – ensuring there was enough demand for this offering.

Although state regulations allow agricultural use of triple treated water, they also require permits that describe specific uses, primarily to ensure the safety of groundwater and the public. Healdsburg’s original permit included grape irrigation, as well as residential, landscape, and industrial uses. But for years it was a challenge to find enough buyers for the treated water, says Fuss. The recycled water, while free, is not potable and requires separate piping and hoses, resulting in a potentially expensive expense. Others had unfounded concerns about nitrate, mineral and chemical residues in the shipment that could contaminate their prized grapes.

As a result, treated wastewater continued to flow into the river until three years ago, when municipal action due to the escalating drought forced the city to fully comply with discharge regulations. The multi-faceted approach reduces the amount of wastewater entering the system from water conservation measures while increasing the demand for recycled water.

Fuss laid some of the groundwork for this by recruiting winemakers for a door-to-door campaign and involving potential participants in planning a pipeline expansion to facilitate supply. Meanwhile, the city required the use of treated water in all construction projects and made it available at two service stations. Finally, as state and regional water restrictions tightened last year, Healdsburg began free private deliveries of up to 500 gallons per subscriber each week.

According to Fuss, accommodating a wide range of users is crucial in order to balance supply and demand. “We know that we can achieve compliance during a drought if the inflow — the amount of wastewater we have to treat — is reduced because people are saving while demand is greater on the other end,” he says. A wet or normal year would turn the equation on its head, which without adequate taps would quickly overflow the system.

Controlling the quality of sanitation is actually a key motivator for water recycling projects in California, Thebo says. And usually, the development of multiple advantages seems to be the common factor of success. “They are at the heart of the partnerships that form between cities, producers, environmental groups and a host of other stakeholders. And they are also what engages the community and local politicians.”

There doesn’t seem to be a lack of community involvement in Healdsburg. Popularity actually killed the residential delivery program, which at its peak served more than a quarter of city households. “It was [financially] Unsustainable as a long-term strategy,” says Rob Scates, Superintendent of Water and Wastewater, “but it definitely helped spread the word.” Water is still being given away at gas stations, and several transport companies are delivering for a small fee (Simmons reports that he pays $40 for every bi-weekly delivery).

However, the city is taking no chances. As an added reassurance, it has recently expanded permitted uses to pasture, commercial orchards and non-dairy cattle. And plans are in the works to expand the pipe network — painted purple to denote nonpotable supply — directly into the city for municipal irrigation, thanks to a $7 million federal grant. “Word has got around that the water quality is very good and that it’s a pretty reliable system,” says Scates. “Now [users] are really addicted to it. They make sure we follow the rules.”

As an early adopter, Dennis De La Montanya, owner of De La Montanya Vineyards, has no qualms. He’s watered the grapes that produce his award-winning Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the purple pipes for years. “It’s been a real boon in terms of water availability. And we don’t pollute groundwater resources or the public water system,” he says. “It’s a win-win situation.”

Concrete results like these highlight the true value of recycled water, says Thebo. “So many of the challenges of water scarcity can feel insurmountable. But when people can see solutions that impact their daily lives, I think that becomes a point of pride for the community.”

This article originally appeared in Grist, a non-profit, independent media organization dedicated to telling stories about climate solutions and a just future. Learn more at

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