Recycled wastewater could relieve struggling farmers
by Kendall Wright | Patterson Irrigator
Jan 27, 2010 | 3978 views | 0 0 comments | 17 17 recommendations | email to a friend | print
With the drought still in full swing despite recent rain, local cities are getting creative when it comes to recycling and reusing their precious resources — even wastewater.

Earlier this month, the Modesto City Council unanimously voted to help pay for a feasibility study that will look at selling the city’s treated wastewater to the Del Puerto Water District, a move that may provide an added revenue source for Modesto and help struggling farmers on the West Side.

The city and the water district have agreed to pay for 25 percent of the study each, and both are seeking money from the federal Bureau of Reclamation to pay the other half.

If the plan progresses, it would likely provide a more reliable water source for the water district, which serves about 45,000 acres of farmland between Vernalis and Santa Nella and gets all of its surface water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta via the Central Valley Project. The district and its farmers have been hit hard in recent years, as pumping restrictions slashed their water deliveries to 10 percent of their normal allotments.

“We’ve struggled with water supplies for some time, and this could solve a lot of those problems,” said Bill Harrison, the district’s general manager. “Treated wastewater is becoming a trend for sure in the agricultural community, and (it is) a safe, viable and potentially reliable water source.”

The city of Modesto operates a secondary wastewater treatment facility on the east side of the San Joaquin River, where millions of gallons of treated water are discarded on city-owned ranch land next to the plant.

But after Stanislaus County officials recently toured one of the largest water-recycling facilities for raw food-crop irrigation in Monterey, the inspiration to turn a city’s waste into revenue through a win-win partnership with the West Side was born.

By 2010, upgrades to the facility will produce about 2.3 million gallons per day of water that has been run through a strict cleaning process — called tertiary treatment — to remove toxins such as ammonia.

By 2015, another 12.6 million gallons could be pumped to water-starved farmers.

“When you look at the multiplier effect of this, it benefits not only Modesto, but all the county as a whole,” said Nick Pinhey, Modesto’s director of utility projects and planning. “We really depend on the crops that are grown in this area, not only for the money, but also the food they provide.

“There’s a real economic drive to keep this region a strong agricultural area, if we can keep the cost of delivering that water affordable.”

Because Modesto’s Jennings Road sewer plant is located across from the San Joaquin River, Pinhey said there is a unique opportunity to construct a pipeline and storage space to pump the water a few miles to the center point of the Del Puerto district.

Pinhey said that, if approved, the project as a whole would cost an estimated $35 million and would most likely be paid for through a cost-sharing agreement between the city of Modesto and the water district, or possibly through federal grant money.

Quality questions

Though the prospect of a reliable water source has many people excited, Pinhey said he acknowledges some might feel a bit uneasy about the quality of the water —specifically, about irrigating food crops with water that might have passed through a toilet bowl.

However, the treatment process could make the water safer, he said.

“With the strenuous testing processes this water has to get through, the treated water won’t be safe enough to drink, but it will actually be considered safe enough to swim in,” he said.

Harrison was also quick to mention that during the recent E. coli scare with spinach, farmers in Monterey who use recycled water were among the few who could prove the outbreak didn’t start with them — they had the water tests to show exactly what was, and wasn’t, in their water.

“I’m sure there’s still a stigma associated with using recycled water for crop irrigation, but I’m not aware that it’s caused any real major problems,” he said. “It’s a safe and reliable water source that’s at our fingertips, and it’s becoming a trend in the market, whether we realize it or not.”

But despite any perceived stigma, local farmers said they wouldn’t turn up their noses at a more reliable — and, hopefully, affordable — water source.

“Farmers are already using treated water for crop irrigation as close as in the Salinas Valley without a problem, so as long as it’s feasible, it looks like a good plan to me,” said Gene Bays, who has farmed apricots, almonds and beans in Patterson and Westley for more than 50 years.

“There are a lot of unknowns right now, but if everything in the plan passes through the hoops, I don’t see why this water would be any different from what we’ve been getting. In fact, it may be better, if it works out.”

Contact Kendall Wright at 892-6187 or

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