Healdsburg farms, vineyards to use treated sewage water


Sonoma County is known for its wine. That's why city leaders and winemakers who are staring in the face of historic drought conditions are getting creative with ways to save their season and protect their bread and butter.

"Even though we got all that rain, we still won't have enough water to get through the growing season," said Doug McIlroy with Aquarius Ranch.

McIlroy grew up in Sonoma County. He has worked, owned, and operated Aquarius Ranch in Healdsburg for more than 40 years. And for the first time, he's afraid.

"We're in the middle of the worst drought that we've had in anybody's lifetime," he said. "Nobody even remembers anything as dry as this."

Dry conditions and a lack of rain have presented urgent problems, putting every acre of his vineyard, and the dozens throughout Sonoma County like it, at risk. But he thinks there is a solution.

"They have wastewater that they need to put into an irrigation system and the farmers south of Healdsburg could easily satisfy that," McIlroy said.

The city of Healdsburg decided to provide treated, recycled wastewater for use by ranchers and grape growers. The water would be pulled from the city's sewage plant and given to ranchers and grape growers for free. It's water that Healdsburg Mayor Jim Wood says is safe to use for farming and would not affect the taste of their crops.

"We have a really highly treated, tertiary treated disinfected water," he said.

Mayor Wood is one of the strongest supporters of the plan to use reclaimed water; a plan that has proven to be successful in areas around Healdsburg.

"We don't have in California, a comprehensive ground water policy," Mayor Wood said. "That's something we really need to be working on and there needs to be consistencies so that all these regional boards are working together on the same page and I don't think that's happening. And I think that's one of the problems."

Using the water would be strictly voluntary, but critics argue that it isn't clear if the city council has approval from regional regulators to move forward. Some fear the treated water could contaminate the groundwater because of what they call the unique geography of Healdsburg.

City leaders are still hoping to get regional regulators on board with their plan, which may be too late for those who need help now.

"We live in extraordinary times and I believe the time for action is now," Mayor Wood said.

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