RECYCLED WATER SAVES CALIFORNIA FARMS  [or kills them and the customers?]
selected articles from the BioCycle Journal of Composting & Organics Recycling, April 2001
The wastewater industry has continued (until recently) to ignore the phenomenon of
viable, but non-
culturable (VBNC) microorganisms (disease causing pathogens) that "regrow" in sludge/biosolids and
reclaimed sewage effluent (water)that
may cause death, disease, cancer, etc.

Spinach, Lettuce and Onions contaminated with E. coli 0157 have cost the farmers of Salinas Valley and
estimated 100,000 million dollars in lost sales. The same price the wastewater treatment and irrigation
system and study cost. The lawsuits are just getting started. What we have is waste disposal people with
little or no scientific background, or interest in health, controlling our health and food safety. Since FDA
signed off on the national sewage sludge use and reclaimed water policy it can not afford to find that an
upset (treatment system malfunction) occurred at the treatment plant or that nonviable bacteria can
become killers over time. Yet, the
American Water and WateReuse Foundation has just commissioned a
study which, hopefully,  sometimes in the future
, "will provide practical data for understanding how
microbial regrowth in reclaimed distribution systems alters effluent microbial water quality - and how to
control this regrowth."

After studies show
no viable microorganisms in tertiary treated wastewater, growers in Salinas Valley now
get two-thirds of their agricultural water needs from recycled sources.

"In addition, the agency hired a public relations firm to prepare a media response plan to address any
potential crop contamination issues that might be linked to their recycled water."

RECYCLED water is saving the farm for approximately 75 growers in the Salinas Valley along California’s Central Coast.
Because their wells were becoming contaminated with seawater, these growers began irrigating their high-value food
crops with recycled water from a nearby wastewater treatment plant. The Monterey (California) Regional Water Pollution
Control Agency (MRWPCA) began exploring the feasibility of a recycled water project in the 1980s because of seawater
intrusion into well water in the Salinas Valley. Seawater intrusion may occur when groundwater is overpumped from wells
in coastal communities. The seawater from the ocean then moves inland through the aquifer and causes salinity
problems for farmers and others pumping groundwater near the shore. In the Salinas Valley, seawater had intruded
almost six miles inland, making the groundwater too salty for either municipal or agricultural use. Through a water
recycling project, the MRWPCA hoped to reduce the extent of seawater intrusion, while providing local growers with a
source of higher quality irrigation water. In addition, the agency would be able to reduce its discharge of treated
wastewater into the nearby Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.


The Salinas Valley is one of the nation’s top producers of cold season vegetable crops, such as lettuce and broccoli.
While state regulations allow for application of tertiary treated water on agricultural crops,
it is usually used on crops for
animal fodder or for food crops that will not be eaten raw
. Because many of their crops are intended for raw
consumption, local growers and health officials were concerned that recycled water might contaminate the produce with
pathogens. Consequently, health officials directed the MRWPCA to conduct pathogen studies before they would
authorize the project.

MRWPCA conducted an extensive study that would ultimately demonstrate that recycled water is as safe as well water
when used to irrigate food crops. Released in 1987, the $8 million dollar study showed no contamination from the
pathogens tested, which included viruses and fecal coliform, when recycled water was used on a variety of food crops
common to the region, including artichokes, lettuce, broccoli, and cauliflower. State and local regulators soon gave
approval for use of MRWPCA’s recycled water on food crops. The agency then had the green light to upgrade its plant
from a secondary to a tertiary treatment system. While secondary treatment is a biological process resulting in biosolids
and clear water, tertiary treatment involves further processing to remove microorganisms and disinfect the water.


” As the plant was nearing completion in 1997, farmers who were planning to use the recycled water became concerned
that it might be contaminated with what they called “emerging pathogens”. These pathogens, which were not included in
the 1987 study, included the resistant E. coli 157:H7 strain, Crytosporidium, Giardia, and Salmonella. The growers’ fears
were fueled by increasing media coverage of food poisoning incidents related to pathogen contaminated produce, such
as the 1996 Odwalla incident involving E. coli contaminated apple juice.

In response to these fears, MRWPCA conducted additional studies to test for the presence of the emerging pathogens.
The tests found no evidence of viable microorganisms in the tertiary treated water. These results were released in a
report in 1998. The MRWPCA also enhanced its treatment and pathogen monitoring program to further assure the
In addition, the agency hired a public relations firm to prepare a media response plan to address any potential
crop contamination issues that might be linked to their recycled water.


In 1997, the MRWPCA completed the $78 million reclamation project in partnership with the Monterey County Water
Resources Agency. Capable of producing 19,500 acre-feet of water per year, the plant now distributes water to 12,000
acres of coastal farmland.

Delivering the recycled water to coastal farms required construction of an extensive distribution system. The system
consists of 45 miles of pipeline, 112 connection turnouts, and serves approximately 75 growers. Pumps connected to
the pipeline are identified by bright purple paint and dot fields throughout the region. Growers connected to this system
receive approximately two-thirds of their agricultural water needs from recycled water, while well water meets their
remaining needs.

To date, the farmers using recycled water seem pleased with the quality of the water. The MRWPCA continues to work
with the growers to ensure that the recycled water is suitable for agriculture. Because the recycled water contains salts,
the MRWPCA periodically tests soil salinity at farms that are using its recycled water. Chlorine levels of 4-6 ppm have
not presented a problem for the farmers.
Aqueous Calcium Chloride is used in genetic transformation of cells by increasing the cell membrane permeability. This
allows DNA fragments to enter the cell more readily.

In addition to being classified as normal, acid, or basic, salts are categorized as simple salts, double salts, or complex
salts. Simple salts, e.g., sodium chloride, contain only one kind of positive ion (other than the hydrogen ion in acid salts).
Double salts contain two different positive ions, e.g., the mineral dolomite, or calcium magnesium carbonate, CaMg(CO3)
2. Alums are a special kind of double salt. Complex salts, e.g., potassium ferricyanide, K3Fe(CN)6, contain a complex
ion that does not dissociate in solution. A
hydrate is a salt that includes water in its solid crystalline form; Glauber's salt
and Epsom salts are hydrates.

Salts are often grouped according to the negative ion they contain, e.g.,
bicarbonate or carbonate, chlorate, chloride,
cyanide, fulminate, nitrate, phosphate, silicate, sulfate, or sulfide.


Since distribution of treated water began in 1997, many growers throughout California, especially those who embrace
sustainable and organic farming practices, have expressed an interest in using recycled water. Brian McElroy of
California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), an independent certifying organization of organic farms, addressed the
acceptability of recycled water for use on organic farms at the recent Ecological Farming Conference which is held
annually near Monterey. Although CCOF has yet to take a formal stance on recycled water, McElroy stated, “The
organic and sustainable farming community has an obligation to assess recycled water because organic is about

CCOF has been certifying organic growers since 1973 and will now begin certifying under the new federal standards on
organic agriculture that came out in December 2000.
McElroy has concluded that the new federal standards allow for
the use of recycled water by default because they fail to address its use.
However, CCOF may require stricter growing
conditions than the new federal standards. The CCOF Handbook published in 2000 states that recycled water is
acceptable only on nonedible food parts.

For example,
drip irrigation of strawberries and lettuce is acceptable. However, sprinkler irrigation of these crops is not
allowed. CCOF will likely be revising its handbook in the near future in response to the new federal regulations. McElroy
had no definitive answers for growers questioning whether recycled water would be allowed. However, he suggested that
oversight of the use of recycled water would be “an enforcement nightmare.”

Farmer Lawrence Jaffe expressed frustration at CCOF’s current policy. “There should be one standard for water, no
matter the source,” suggested Jaffe, who farms with recycled water in the grape growing region of Sonoma County in
California. He feels that recycled water has proven itself safe and that the stigma lies mainly with farmers since
consumers do not generally question the source of irrigation water.

While California has a long history of water supply problems, water recycling programs throughout the state are helping
to create a solution. MRWPCA’s General Manager, Keith Israel, believes that water recycling will soon become
mandated in the not-so-distant future in California. “Water is more scarce than landfill space, and there are laws for
mandatory recycling to keep waste out of landfills. I predict there will be mandatory recycling of water in the future.”


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