A Washington Farm Bureau policy analyst said Tuesday that the state Department of Ecology’s proposed rules for diverting municipal wastewater for such purposes as irrigating trees farms, pastures and crops are better than a widely panned proposal made two years ago.
The Farm Bureau supports irrigating with “reclaimed water,” but it and others complained in 2015 that Ecology’s proposal could shortchange downstream water-right holders, including farmers.
“They did respond to our comments, and the new rule-making is much improved at this point,” said Evan Sheffels, the bureau’s associate director of governmental relations.
Ecology says rerouting effluent for non-household uses, instead of discharging it into rivers and streams, provides a drought-proof and year-round source of water. The Farm Bureau agrees, as long as the projects don’t impair existing agricultural water rights.
Ecology lists 24 reclaimed-water projects around the state, mostly at municipal sewer plants. The uses include watering parks and golf courses. The projects are regulated by Ecology and the state Department of Health. Ecology has worked sporadically for more than a decade to write a single-set of rules to encourage using reclaimed water to stretch out the water supply and reduce the amount of wastewater dumped into Puget Sound.
According to the Farm Bureau, Ecology’s proposal in 2015, which the department withdrew, would have been a major policy change, shifting to downstream water-right holders the burden of adjusting to new water uses.
The latest proposal, which is being circulated for public comment, will bar reclaimed-water projects from impairing other water rights, unless the water-right holder agrees to compensation or a mitigation plan, such as improving wetlands or fish habitat.
The department says it simplified the proposal to protect water rights.
“Water-right holders do get priority,” Ecology spokeswoman Jessica Payne said.
The rule would allow food crops to be irrigated with reclaimed water, with some restrictions based on how much the water has been treated. Food-safety rules and consumer reaction also may limit the practice, Sheffels said.
The USDA reported that in 2013 more than 10,000 acres of farmland in Washington and more than 300,000 acres nationwide were irrigated by reclaimed water. “We think it can be a valuable resource for farmers,” Sheffels said.
Ecology will take public comments on the proposed rule until Oct. 13. The department tentatively plans to enact a rule in February.