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September 13, 2019  |  Written by Kelley M. Taber

State Water Board Authorizes Major Recycled Water Project

Efforts to increase recycled water use in California got a significant boost this week with the State Water Board’s issuance of an order authorizing the Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District’s (Regional San) South Sacramento Agriculture & Habitat Lands Recycled Water Program (South County Ag Program or Program) to deliver an average of 45 million gallons per day (mgd) of recycled water from the Sacramento Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant (SRWTP) for agricultural irrigation and fish and wildlife habitat enhancement purposes.

Regional San treats wastewater for approximately 1.4 million residents in the Sacramento Region.  To date, Regional San has implemented small recycled water projects for urban landscaping, but the bulk of its treated wastewater (approximately 133 mgd, on average) is discharged to the Sacramento River near Freeport.  Regional San is in the process of constructing nearly $2 billion in treatment plant upgrades to meet more stringent water quality requirements, through its EchoWater project, which will be completed in 2023.  These improvements in effluent water quality will enable Regional San to significantly expand its water recycling efforts.

The South County Ag Program is one of the largest water recycling projects in California. The Program is designed to eventually deliver up to 50,000 acre feet per year of tertiary treated wastewater to an estimated 16,000 acres of agricultural and habitat lands in southern Sacramento County that currently utilize groundwater for irrigation.  By improving groundwater conditions along the Cosumnes River, the South County Ag Program is expected to have significant ecosystem benefits.  These include the improvement of up to 5,000 acres of wetlands and riparian forest, the creation of 3,500 acres of sandhill crane habitat, 500 acres of vernal pool habitat, as well as a longer migration window for fall run Chinook salmon as a result of increased flow in the Cosumes River.

Approved for up to $280 million in funding through the State’s Water Storage Investment Program, the South County Ag Program has extensive support from a variety of stakeholders, including The Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense Fund, Trout Unlimited, and the Sacramento County Farm Bureau, among others.  Notwithstanding this broad support, and Water Code provisions confirming that Regional San has the exclusive right to the beneficial use of its recycled wastewater as against anyone who has supplied the water to be discharged, approval of the Program’s wastewater change petition required that Regional San resolve protests to its petition that were filed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Westlands Water District ,San Luis Delta Mendota Water Authority and a private citizen.  These protests raised concerns that the proposed reduction in wastewater discharge could adversely affect protected fish species and potentially harm stored water supplies of the Central Valley Project from decreased flows in the Sacramento River due to reduced discharge from the SRWTP.  Negotiations among the parties resulted in protest dismissal conditions that were included in the State Water Board’s order approving the petition.  With this key permit approval in place, Regional San is one step closer to making the South County Ag Program a reality, and proceeding with the final design, construction and implementation.

Somach Simmons & Dunn attorneys Andrew Hitchings and Kelley Taber assisted Regional San with its wastewater change petition and associated environmental review, and with ongoing Program permitting.  For questions about the Program or water recycling in general, contact Andrew Hitchings at ahitchings@somachlaw.com or Kelley Taber at ktaber@somachlaw.com, or (916) 446-7979.

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