Overcoming Drought Part III: Saving Waste to Water

August 20, 2002 - 10:58

Where irrigation is concerned, there's no reason to let your money go down the toilet if you can access reclaimed wastewater.

Glancing down at the toilet, you probably don't give
much thought to the fate of the swirling water as it flushes out of sight. Did
you know, for example, that an estimated 1.7 billion gallons of wastewater are
reused every day, just a fraction of all discharged wastewater,
with a potential growth rate of 10-15 percent per year? If you live in an area
prone to drought, where your water supply could be restricted, if you're
looking for possible long-term cost savings on water, or if you just happen to
be concerned about the future of our fresh water supply, you may want to start
thinking about wastewater as an alternative irrigation source--the treated
kind, that is.

Save water, save money

Whiting Preston, president of Manatee Fruit Co./Manatee
Floral, Palmetto, Fla., started working with reclaimed water approximately 25
years ago. Because Manatee is conveniently located right next to the treatment
plant, the city asked Preston to take the plant's reused water because it
needed to dispose of it. Manatee originally used the reclaimed water to
irrigate its gladiolus. "What it did for us is that we didn't have
to pump our well, we were able to use the water, and there was definitely a
[cost] savings," Preston said. Since there was never a guarantee that the
county would be able to consistently follow through with the water delivery,
however, Manatee kept its water-use permits for the use of groundwater from
wells, which it uses intermittently to balance out its water distribution.

Transportation of the reclaimed water from the treatment
facility to the growing operation was easy because of Manatee's close
proximity to the plant. The county installed a water recovery system so Manatee
could retain all the water that was pumped out to them within a pond. "In
an effort to conserve water and decrease runoff," Preston explained,
"the county installed a pump-back system on the tail of the farm." Manatee
used the water in the greenhouse for some of the cut flowers and has not
noticed any adverse effects on the plants grown in the ground beds or sandy
soils due to water quality issues. Preston has, however, noted difficulties
with soilless medias, which has made further internal filtration necessary,
though not to the point where it's potable.

"There is an obligation on the part of the user of
this water not to have people drink it, and that's certainly a concern of
ours. We post signs to keep people from drinking the water, and they're
willing to cooperate. Reused water has to meet certain standards, and since the
county has to be within those standards, they give us a report to let us know
what kinds of elements are in it," Preston said.

Manatee has not had to pay for its reclaimed water since the
beginning of the agreement many years ago, but Preston doesn't know that
that's going to continue. "I think that over time, treated
wastewater is going to become a marketable commodity as it becomes more and more
difficult to receive water rights for your farm and land. It's an
expensive process, but I think it's also going to become more valuable
and more expensive to pump groundwater."

Manatee's case may be an anomaly; for most businesses
interested in reclaiming water, their counties may be unable to foot the bill
to dispose of their water and assist in retrofitting costs. Such was the
situation with Color Spot Nurseries, headquartered in Pleasant Hill,
Calif., which has been using tertiary-treated water since 1999. Growers in California
who have access to tertiary-treated water are required by law to use it on
their nursery crops. Color Spot had to set up the necessary specifications for
the water from the plant, involving soil laboratories to determine the maximum
salt levels the nursery could tolerate through their primary source of water.
The water treatment plant then guaranteed them that they would produce water
within a certain salt range and plumbed it in through an 18-inch line.

Though Color Spot did not receive any governmental
assistance with retrofitting, it has still benefited tremendously from the cost
savings of using treated wastewater. "The water was approximately 30-40
percent cheaper, so there was a cost benefit for us," said Jim Crockett,
environmental and regulatory affairs manager for Color Spot. "We could
live with the salt levels fairly well, but we decided that we also had to put
in a blending station. We had to re-learn how to grow certain sensitive crops a
little bit differently, so it was probably about a 3-year learning curve after
the installation."

Getting started

The West and Central Basin Municipal Water District in
Carson, Calif., treats industrial and domestic wastewater to secondary levels
and regularly pumps it out to the ocean 4-5 miles off the coast. A portion of
that water is sent to its treatment plant where it is treated to tertiary
levels, and then can be sold to individual recycled water purveyors. These
retailers sell it to qualified end-users. "On a wholesale basis, the
recycled water is available for approximately 50 percent less relative to
imported water. As a general rule, the discount to the end-user is something
along the order of 20-30 percent less than they'd pay for imported water.
That tends to be the largest incentive for people--the reduction in cost
for water," said Mark Tettemer, recycled water project manager for West
and Central. The other important benefit nearly goes without saying--constant access to a drought-proof supply of water.

West and Central pays for the water distribution system up
to the meter, which is the responsibility of the individual purveyor.
Downstream of the meter there are further modifications, called on-site
retrofits, which are the responsibility of the end-user. "To try to
eliminate [the retrofits] as an obstacle from a capital funding perspective,
we'll help finance those on-site improvements. We'd like to see our
expense for the retrofit repaid in 10 years. To make it sort of an invisible capital
cost, we'll continue to charge them their potable water rate, and
we'll use the difference between the potable and recycle rate for
repayment. So they'll continue to pay their existing water bill rate over
that period until it's repaid, and in essence it's not really costing
them anything," Tettemer said.

And what's involved with retrofitting? The objective
is to separate the domestic water from reclaimed water supplies. Most
facilities receive a single supply of domestic water that they split off for
irrigation needs, but to receive reclaimed water, there must be a separate
distribution system built in. The signature color used for reclaimed water pipe
is purple; this pipe would be connected where a normal, single-distribution
water system has a backflow device for irrigation.

If any of this has peaked your interest so far, you probably
want to know where you can sign up to get started. Unless you live in
California, Florida, Texas or one of the other states that regularly struggles
with water restrictions, you may have to be willing to do some footwork.
"Usually what ends up happening is if you've got a water district
that's looking to start recycling water, they'll go out and look
for customers," said Rick Martin of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
"In California, many of the water districts that are doing recycling will
sell the water for about 80 percent of what potable water would cost.
You'll have to do some retrofitting of pipes, and then there's
always the issue of whether or not, depending on the types of plants you're
going to water, the total dissolved solids (TDS) level in the reclaimed water
will be too high." In general, if you're interested in using
reclaimed water, you should contact your local water purveyor to see if there
is a pipeline running within the vicinity of your operation.

There are also certain qualifications that must be met,
according to Tettemer. In the case of the West and Central Basin Municipal
Water District, there are two steps involved in the approval process.
"First, does the collective of potential customers economically support
the project?" he said. If the project can be supported, the
second step is to work with individual customers to assess whether or not they
can persuade enough of them to subscribe to take the water. With enough
subscribers, West and Central can then move forward with the design and
construction of the pipes to resolve the on-site retrofit issues, Tettemer
said.

Additionally, there are individual state regulations.
"Most states now have regulations on recycled water for various
applications and whether or not it's suitable for human contact or
not," explained G. Wade Miller, executive director of the WateReuse
Association. "The water, depending on the application, would have to be
treated to whatever standard is specified for the application in the state
regulations." California, for example, has a written code that identifies
water quality standards that must be met to qualify for certain applications.
But if you can't meet these qualifications, if you aren' t within
close proximity of a wastewater treatment plant, if there aren't enough
potential customers in your area to use the water, there?s still
something you can do: get political.

Educating the masses

"It takes a lot of political will to take a program like
this to fruition because it's tens of millions of dollars to construct
facilities if [a municipality] doesn't have the capacity to do that. I
think it's appropriate that everyone consider it and then move on to what
they can do to make it work," offered Tettemer.

A municipality can qualify for 25-50 percent of project
development costs through a U.S. Department of Reclamation program, but thus
far, only 22 projects have been authorized in the past 10 years, according to
Miller. Some states have created grant and loan programs, as in California,
where Proposition 13, passed in 1999, created a $100 million grant/loan fund
for large projects. "For a small user, it would really come down to the
economics and availability of water and if this is the best alternative,"
Miller added.

So does it make sense to use reclaimed water in areas where
drought is an infrequent issue or where the water transportation infrastructure
is not there? Since there are different variables involved in many cases,
including varying water rates and other economic issues, it depends. What is
most needed right now is education. "It's going to take awhile to
educate the planners and municipalities and politicians that this is a great
way to augment existing sources of supply," said Miller. And even at just
the general public level there's a lack of awareness: "People think
tertiary-treated water is not even treated," Crockett said.

The WateReuse Association is trying to make headway on the
education front by organizing a government-wide, multi-agency task force that
would execute an inventory of various water reuse programs and practices and
then look for potential opportunities. "If we can get this piece of
legislation enacted," Miller continued, "it requires a report to
the president and congress within the next 18 months. That would put water
reuse on the radar screen. We?ve made tremendous progress in the last few
months, and hopefully by the end of the session, we'll have gotten some
good results."

The key here, however, is to be proactive about your water
source before you have to react to the government regulations that may come
with increased federal awareness of the issue. Crockett, who is planning to
start lecturing on water reuse next year at the Southeast Greenhouse Conference,
believes it's critical that growers begin to consider water recycling and
reclamation now, while there's still time. "You need to start
planning now, before you're forced to do it and you won't have the
flexibility. And if you set up right to begin with, you'll be ahead of
the curve. You'll become the model, instead of you trying to conform to a
model that some engineer in the Department of Public Works developed because he
doesn't know our industry."

About The Author

Brandi D. Thomas is associate editor of GPN.

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