California farmers turn to sewers for water

PATTERSON, Calif. (KGO) -- California's prolonged drought is forcing Central Valley farmers to scramble for water to irrigate crops. They have to be creative. One agency is even turning to a sewage plant to meet demand.

Just outside Modesto, farming communities like Patterson are facing a crisis. There's barely enough water to irrigate crops, so little, that about a quarter of the local farms have stopped growing anything.

"We have over 12,000 acres that has not been farmed for the last several years, and that has very sudden and severe economic ripple effects through these small communities," said Anthea Hansen of the Del Puerto Water District,

The Del Puerto Water District is responsible for supplying water to a swath of land 50 miles long from Tracy to Santa Nella. The district gets all its irrigation water from the Delta-Mendota Canal. The contract allows them to take more than 140,000 feet.

"This year, we're five percent of that," said Hansen.

But Del Puerto will soon tap an unexpected source, used water from the nearby Modesto sewage plant.

The city flushes nearly 15 million gallons of water down the drain every day. That's roughly 15 percent of what nearby Del Puerto's needs. Modesto's waste water plant recently underwent an $150 million upgrade, making the sewage recyclable.

William Wong is with the City of Modesto Utility District. He said, "Right now, recycled water is what we call in the industry, new water."

Senior Wastewater Treatment Plant Operator, Ben Koehler said, "What we are accomplishing here is taking raw wastewater and removing all the pollutants in order to produce clean affluence on the other end."

That recycled water gets discharged into the San Joaquin River, or pools near the river.

Under a new agreement, a $100 million pipeline will divert that water to farmers.

"It's safe for irrigation on crops," Koehler said.

Hansen pointed out that it is used in other parts of the state. "If people have been eating strawberries, or artichokes over the last decade plus, from the Salinas Valley, that's what's been used on it," he said.

But the project will take the idea to a much bigger scale. "This will be one of the largest beneficial water reuse projects in the country," said Wong.

Other Central Valley communities are watching closely to see what happens.

"I get a lot of calls, people wanting to know how do you do it? Where do we start?" Hansen said.

It will start Friday when the new pipeline breaks ground.

Written and Produced by Ken Miguel.

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