Sonoma County Gazette, August, 2014: The Drought

For California, the drought is worse than serious…..
There’s a drought on, turn the water off!”. This phrase appears everywhere lately. While summer is here, abundant water is not, and living with severely reduced supplies may become the new normal for 2015. The U.S. Drought Monitor designates the whole of California to be severely dry now and there is dire need to stretch our limited supplies as far as we can.


In our watershed, Lake Mendocino is the greatest concern with its water supply pool currently about 38% of capacity (compared to mid-July average of 67.3% for period 1959-2013). Lake Sonoma, which supplies urban water users and the lower river, is in better shape at around 68% (compared to mid-July average of 93.9% for period 1992-2013 ).


While this year is very bad for Healdsburg on north, there is more concern about the possibility of even worse shortages if little rain falls this winter, and perhaps the following winter also. Reservoir levels may become too low to provide basic services for human health, not to mention what it will do to agriculture and the environment. While this is scary to contemplate, we must take measures to address the problem now, prepare for the worst, but hope for the best. We all need to take part.


A recent State Order included the following conservation demands according to a Water Agency report: “With this regulation, all Californians will be expected to stop washing down driveways and sidewalks; watering of outdoor landscapes that cause excess runoff; using a hose to wash a motor vehicle, unless the hose is fitted with a shut-off nozzle; and using potable water in a fountain or decorative water feature, unless the water is recirculated. Local agencies could ask courts to fine water users up to $500 a day for failure to implement conservation requirements.”

In fact, great water savings can be realized by conversions of turf to drought resistant landscapes. For instance, SCWA current newsletter reports: “The average lawn consumes approximately 20,000 gallons of water a year and about 50% of household water for every 1,000 sq. ft. of grass. A low water use landscape can reduce this water use by 50-75%.”


Conservation is safer, cheaper, and easier….Since early June, the State has taken several precedent setting actions to address the drought, with primary focus on wastewater reuse and water conservation. We don’t condemn wastewater reuse, but see conservation as much simpler, cheaper, and safer to implement. Requirements for safe application of tertiary wastewater have not been consistently adhered to and consequently not always carried out safely.


Indoor water conservation costs far less than storing, treatment, and distribution of wastewater, not to mention extensive human health and environmental benefits. Wastewater reuse must be implemented with great care. Remnant toxins are retained at low levels in tertiary wastewater, but these low amounts can still be problematic for human and aquatic life health. Reuse in urban areas has not always prevented excessive spray and runoff to creeks, and lack of public notice about wastewater reuse is common.


It makes more sense to reuse wastewater appropriately on large agricultural parcels, where conservation is cheaper, easier, and safer than using recycled water from sewage treatment plants. For ideas on how to conserve, visit Sonoma Marin Water Saving Partnership’s website at


Conservation cheaper, healthier, & more reliable than urban reuse….

  • During drought, much less water is available for reuse and therefore investment in separate reuse infrastructure may be waste of money,
  • Since there is less sewage needing treatment, fewer chemicals, less energy, less hardware, fewer man hours, less administration, etc. are needed to process wastewater generated,
  • Local recycled water costs to consumer are same or more than potable since Santa Rosa charges 95% of potable costs for recycled water and other related expenses probably exceed 5%,
  • Urban reuse can result in impacts to creeks from irrigation runoff during times when low flows provide no assimilation capacity for toxic and nutrient containing wastewater. This is especially important when recreational use is high. TERTIARY WATER IS NOT POTABLE WATER!


Recycled wastewater issues…..Current reuse monitoring and reporting requirements are not protective enough. While most pathogens are removed from tertiary wastewater, a few remain. Studies show that of ones remaining, an increased number are found to be antibiotic resistant. This means that some infections resulting from exposure to treated wastewater may be untreatable, because antibiotics that would normally be used, could prove ineffective.


Since we know that some of this irrigated water gets into storm drains, people recreating in the river’s low flow could be exposed to remnant pathogens. (Regional Board is currently conducting pathogen studies on river and tributaries, and discovering certain forms of bacteria to be widespread up and down the river. Furthermore, pathogens can be just as harmful for wildlife.)


In urban areas, irrigation runoff is common. Strong sprays should not be allowed and they should not be placed next to impervious surfaces, near waterways or drainages. Irrigation should not be used on narrow strips next to and between streets and drains or on steeply sloped grassy areas in parks where it can enter drains. Larger signs should be required in prominent places where people will actually see them. Irrigation times should be published, even when occurring at night, so people can avoid those areas. Furthermore, more staff hours are necessary for effective system oversight.

Unfortunately, state officials have also determined that tertiary wastewater used for irrigation does not need to be monitored for endocrine disrupting chemicals even though endocrinologists all over the world agree that minute exposures can sometimes wreck havoc with the endocrine system of humans and wildlife. In fact, the vast majority of chemicals are either not monitored at all, or monitored infrequently. No information is available on synergistic effects of multiple chemicals.

Pesticides, nutrients from fertilizers, and other chemical compounds may be washed off irrigated areas into our low flowing waterways to the detriment of people and aquatic life. Many pesticides are endocrine disruptors and not usually tested for in wastewater.

Photographs tell the story….This July, several wastewater irrigation sites in Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park have been photographed where few signs were posted, extensive runoff occurred, some into storm drains, and people walking dogs were unknowingly exposed. Many irrigation sites are over-irrigated year after year with no apparent penalties incurred.

Finally, the Governor and State Board have recently obliterated environmental review for irrigation projects. Their reporting requirements have been diminished and new authorities are being set up to allow the “….fox to guard the chicken house.” We plan to continue with our picture taking and hope the urban non-agricultural public will implement environmentally friendly conservation techniques as their approach to this problem.