NORTH BAY — Legislation has been introduced that could significantly help grape growers and other farmers in the region utilize an additional resource for securing water during the dry season.
Assembly Bill 1200, introduced by Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, and sponsored by the Sonoma County Water Agency, would establish a pilot project that would permit the agency to study the impacts of using recycled rain water for use in watering crops.
The practice currently is not permitted because of unknown impacts related to runoff in streams and, eventually, the San Pablo Bay, according to Pam Jeane, assistant general manager for operations at the Sonoma County Water Agency.
“It’s really important for farmers that they have a full reservoir during the dry season,” Ms. Jeane said. But that’s not always possible, she said, because such reservoirs that catch rain water need to reserve some space in the event of a storm so that the mixed water doesn’t run over and thus run off from irrigation ponds into nearby streams.
“What ends up happening is that if you get a late rain season, and you have a full reservoir of water, you could end up having a mixture of rain water and recycled water, and those discharges are not permitted,” Ms. Jeane said.
AB 1200 attempts to alleviate the concern surrounding the mixed water discharges by closely studying three or four properties in the Carneros grape-growing region, where the Sonoma Valley Sanitation District and its agricultural partners risk being penalized if irrigation ponds overflow during a rain storm.
The water district does hold permits for allowing discharge of stored water for agricultural purpose and habitat restoration within the same watershed, but overflow from rain is still a concern.
“You can put it in the pond, but the problem is if it ends up on the land, you can be fined for that,” Mr. Levine said. “Everyone is interested in making the use of water more efficient and more effective and perhaps using it twice. So we’re trying to make the law better for agriculture.”
“Hopefully we’ll get an idea whether or not having this commingled water is really an issue or not,” Ms. Jeane said. “My personal feeling is that it’s not going to be a problem. The area is where we already release recycled water into the same watershed. We feel it’s a pretty low risk. Generally, what’s going to come out of the reservoir is going to be better than what goes into the reservoir, but we don’t know that for sure, and that’s the whole purpose — to gather data,” she added. “The idea is have some data, not just for regional water control but perhaps further across the state.”
Mr. Levine added “we have received interest statewide.”
It’s not yet known how much the pilot would cost should it pass the Assembly, but Ms. Jeane said the Sonoma County Water Agency would fund the project through the various water districts involved, and through a series of grants it would seek. It would not come out of California’s general fund.
The Sonoma Valley County Sanitation District, which the water agency operates, would help fund the project. Neighboring Napa Valley Sanitation District will likely be involved in the pilot in some capacity but is not expected to contribute toward its funding.
Under AB 1200, the pilot project would monitor the quality of recycled water and runoff going into irrigation ponds as well as the quality of the “mixed” water — recycled and storm water — that overflows from ponds. Regulators and policy makers hope to determine if the overflowing mixed water creates water-quality concerns.
The pilot, as proposed, would also be required to incorporate input from a number of stakeholders, which has yet to be formalized but would likely consist of regulatory agencies, agricultural organizations, environmental groups and local water management agencies.
The bill could come to the floor for a vote by August or early September, Mr. Levine said. If passed, it would take effect in January 2014. The water agency said it would like to have at least two years to monitor the data collected.