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Water recycling project promises supply for farms

Issue Date: June 24, 2020
By Christine Souza
Construction is expected to start in 2022 on the South County Ag Program tertiary-treated water facility, shown in this rendering.
Image courtesy of Brown and Caldwell

Planning efforts with farmers and preliminary designs are underway for what is expected to be one of the largest water recycling projects in California.

The Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District is constructing the $375 million South Sacramento County Agriculture & Habitat Lands Recycled Water Program, or the South County Ag Program. As part of the wastewater provider's $2 billion treatment plant upgrade, the district—known as Regional San—will construct new transmission and distribution pipelines to deliver recycled water from its treatment facility in Elk Grove to irrigation systems in southern Sacramento County.

The State Water Resources Control Board authorized the district to deliver 50,000 acre-feet per year of highly treated, recycled water to an estimated 16,000 acres of farm and habitat lands near the Cosumnes River and Stone Lakes Wildlife Refuge.

Project proponents described using recycled water for these purposes as a safe alternative that helps the region responsibly manage its water resources and reduces farmers' reliance on pumped groundwater.

"This project will help offset what groundwater is currently being pumped to irrigate crops; it's called an in-lieu recharge program, so it's not recharging the groundwater specifically," said Terrie Mitchell, manager of legislative and regulatory affairs for Regional San and manager of the South County Ag Program. "Farmers will be using recycled water instead of pumping groundwater, so that groundwater will get replenished because it's not being pumped."

Lindsey Liebig, executive director of the Sacramento County Farm Bureau, said the South County Ag Program will provide Sacramento County farms with a new supply of reliable, sustainable irrigation water.

"Regional San is providing this water at a reasonable cost for a long-term timeline that will help not only provide water to agricultural users but reduce the need for groundwater pumping. It's going to be affordable and something that farmers can depend on as a reliable water source," Liebig said.

Sacramento County farmer Mike Wackman, who farms grapes, walnuts, almonds and alfalfa north of the Cosumnes River, said he has agreed to take part in the program and also encouraged others to participate.

"I've been very involved from the beginning because it's a good project. The program provides another source of water when water is becoming scarce throughout this whole state," Wackman said.

Liebig described the program as "very beneficial for agriculture," adding that it is also happening in coordination with the Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program, intended to ensure water quality.

The program will help local groundwater sustainability agencies comply with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, to bring groundwater supplies into balance. For the South American Subbasin, designated as a high-priority basin, the local GSA must develop a groundwater sustainability plan by Jan. 31, 2022.

Regional San estimates that in 10 years, the program will increase groundwater storage by 245,000 acre-feet.

In addition to reducing groundwater pumping and providing recycled water to farms, the district said, the program will add more water to the Cosumnes River and benefit the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

"Because groundwater pumping won't be continuing, those groundwater elevations will be increasing quite substantially and that will have ecosystem and habitat benefits," Mitchell said.

In 2018, the California Water Commission awarded up to $280.5 million in funding from the 2014 Proposition 1 water bond, to help make the South County Ag Program a reality. Among the eight proposed water storage projects considered for bond funding by the commission, the South County Ag Program ranked second overall and received the maximum funding amount the regional sanitation district requested.

"With the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, obviously there's a lot of new regulatory requirements that are going to affect a lot of entities that haven't been regulated before, so this project is unique in that not only is it providing a water supply, but also groundwater storage and ecosystem benefits," Mitchell said.

Justin Fredrickson, California Farm Bureau Federation environmental policy analyst, said the project contributes to the diversified water portfolio the state will need. At the same time, he stressed the importance of protecting aquifers and existing water rights, ensuring a safe and healthy food supply, and remaining cognizant of different crop requirements.

"While access to the more traditional sources of water remains critical, we are beginning to see that these urban-agriculture partnerships are increasing statewide and can offer agriculture another option. These arrangements can be a real win-win," Fredrickson said.

Preliminary design work on the South County Ag Program is anticipated later this year, Mitchell said, with construction to start in late 2022. The first phase of the recycled water delivery system is expected to be operational by late 2023.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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