By CLARK MASON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Wastewater and winegrapes may not seem like a complementary pairing, but they soon will be in Healdsburg.
The City Council on Monday unanimously approved a project to irrigate more than 300 acres of vineyards with highly treated wastewater from Healdsburg’s new state-of-the-art treatment plant.
The reclaimed water could be used as early as next summer on vineyards owned by Syar Industries that surround the $32 million plant west of town.
Reclaimed water has been used for years on wine grapes and other crops in parts of Sonoma County that include the prestigious Carneros region, according to Jim Flugum, Healdsburg’s assistant public works director.
“It’s not new. It’s just new in the northern part of the county,” he said.
The city had to get the approval of state water regulatory officials and address the concerns of clean-water advocates before it could proceed.
“It has been a tortuous path to get to this point,” said Councilman Tom Chambers. The city has “gone beyond what was required,” with technical studies and a well-monitoring program to show that it is safe.
Healdsburg officials are proud of the city’s new wastewater plant, which opened in 2008.
“Our water quality is much higher than average reclaimed water,” said Mayor Jim Wood.
“We’ve done test after test to show this water is good,” noted Councilman Gary Plass. “From my standpoint, it’s a win-win for everyone.”
Highly treated wastewater produced in Sonoma Valley irrigates vineyards, pastures, golf courses and playgrounds. It also is used to restore a saltwater marsh.
Santa Rosa’s regional wastewater system uses more than one billion gallons of highly treated wastewater to irrigate more than 6,000 acres of farmland and vineyards.
Even though the state considers the effluent safe enough to fill swimming pools, its use can still be controversial. North County residents and grape growers raised concerns last year about the Sonoma County Water Agency’s plan to use treated wastewater on farms and vineyards.
Critics said use of the treated wastewater on thin, porous soils could contaminate groundwater and wells.
The project would have brought treated wastewater from Santa Rosa and Windsor, using a system of 19 reservoirs and more than 100 miles of pipeline to provide irrigation for farmers and vintners in Dry Creek, Alexander and Russian River valleys.
Conceding it lacked the funding and the customers to pull off the giant project, the Water Agency last year shelved it.
In Healdsburg, the contract with Syar is still being finalized. In essence, Syar will get the water free for five years if it uses a minimum 25 million gallons annually. The city’s portion of the construction cost is about $50,000.
Healdsburg for years has discharged its wastewater into a rock quarry pond next to the Russian River, but as a result of court cases, had to upgrade the quality of the effluent and develop another method of disposing of it during the summer.
An engineering firm is nearly done designing a project that will allow Healdsburg to use the water to irrigate the city’s parks, playgrounds and golf courses during the summer.
The irrigation system is estimated to cost between $10 million and $14 million, but funding has not been secured.