SACRAMENTO — A state panel wants to make it easier for local water districts to use recycled water to irrigate crops, but the degree to which that will help this summer remains to be seen.
The State Water Resources Control Board’s general order, issued June 3, will enable regional water-quality boards to streamline permits for non-potable but highly treated municipal wastewater that is suitable for reuse.
While some communities in California already use recycled water, state officials say ramping up its use could provide as much as 2.25 million acre-feet of “new water” by 2030. An acre-foot is enough water to serve two average households for one year, depending on location, the state water board explains.
But how much of the water is sent to farms this summer depends on how many recycled water facilities sign up, said Scott Couch, chief of groundwater protection for the board’s Division of Water Quality. The board’s order sets standard conditions for the use of recycled water, relieving producers, distributors and users of the water from the sometimes lengthy permit process and giving them certainty as to the requirements they’ll have to meet, a board fact sheet explains.
Another uncertainty is how the recycled water would actually reach farms, said Danny Merkley, the California Farm Bureau Federation’s director of water resources.
“It may offer some assistance to farmers and ranchers this year, but I believe there will also be some limiting factors related to infrastructure that will need to be put in place to move appropriately treated recycled water to farming operations,” Merkley said in an email.
Further, the use of recycled water for irrigation is limited to agronomic rates for applying manure or sludge to crops based on their need, which the state asserts will limit the amount of recycled water that could potentially reach aquifers.
Merkley said the Farm Bureau is concerned about how agronomic rates will be defined by regional water quality control boards.
“Additionally, there is no allowance for application of water for frost protection, an important issue for some of our members,” he said.
The CFBF is working with Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, to require the state Department of Public Health to determine whether using recycled water for pasture animals is safe, and perhaps to establish uniform statewide criteria for safe use. The legislation, Assembly Bill 2071, would prohibit recycled water to be supplied to dairy animals producing products for human consumption.
The Assembly unanimously passed the bill on May 28 and sent it to the Senate.
The state water board contends that every acre-foot of recycled water used for crop or landscape irrigation, dust control or other purposes reduces the demand on fresh-water sources such as aquifers, rivers and streams. Recently the board allocated about $800 million in low-interest loans for recycled-water projects.
Officials say the recycled water would not be used to supplement drinking water supplies or recharge groundwater stores and that it would be subject to existing criteria, including disinfection requirements and allowable uses of recycled water.
The state board touted its recycled-water order as an alternative for Central Valley farmers who will receive little or no surface water this summer because of the drought.
“The well-managed use of recycled water by municipalities and agricultural communities for critical outdoor irrigation needs is a smart way to extend our fresh water supplies at any time, but especially so during this drought,” board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus said in a statement.
California State Water Resources Control Board: http://www.swrcb.ca.gov