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How to Get Free Recycled Water in California

The pioneering efforts of a Northern California water agency in 2014 have led to the creation of a first-of-its-kind program that has helped create recycled water fill stations across the state.

Written by Nick Hansen Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Dsrsd recycled water fill station
Customers have hauled more than 35 million gallons (130 million liters) of recycled water from Dublin San Ramon Services District fill station in Pleasanton, California.Dublin San Ramon Services District

When the drought hit hard in 2014, Dublin San Ramon Services District (DSRSD), a water and wastewater utility, learned that it would receive only 5 percent of its typical water allocation for the 2014 water year. This meant that outdoor irrigation had to be severely curtailed in DSRSD’s service area and customers would likely need to let their lawns die.

DSRSD operations manager Dan Gallagher came home and said to his wife “we might not be able to water the yard.” Rosalie Gallagher turned to her husband and said, “Honey, you have to do something, you have all this recycled water, we should use it to water the lawn.” That conversation led to an idea for a new recycled water program in California that has saved more than 100 million gallons (375 million liters) of drinking water so far.

The district worked the regional Water Quality Control Board on a new standard for the residential use of recycled water and customer training and application agreements were established.

The first residential recycled water fill station opened on Thursday, June 12, 2014. News of the program hit international newspapers, and local television news crews flooded to the fill station to see how this new resource could be utilized. As interest grew from the news community, so did demand from residents with dying landscapes.

The City of Livermore, located on the edge of the Livermore Valley wine country and hot on the tails of DSRSD’s great success story, opened their own fill station three weeks later.

By October, Central Contra Costa Sanitary District in Martinez was making plans to open their own fill station. Demand picked up from there but got a big boost in April 2015 when Gov. Jerry Brown announced a statewide mandatory conservation requirement of 25 percent for urban water suppliers.

With that, residential recycled water fill stations would become a lifeline for landscapes in need.

Within the next few months, customers were signing up by the hundreds. Demand skyrocketed for information about what tanks to buy, which pumps to use and how to unload them once home. To fill the void, I created RecycledH2O.net as a resource for recycled water haulers everywhere.

The website contains useful information for homeowners that want to haul recycled water, but don’t know how to get started. There is a Google map that shows all of the fill station locations in the state of California (27 and counting) and statistics that track how much water each fill station has given away. In cooperation with agencies that operate residential recycled water fill stations, more than 10,000 California residents have hauled more than 106 million gallons (400 million liters) of recycled water, conserving drinking water supplies in the process.

A resident fills 5-gallon (19-liter) buckets in the trunk of his sedan at Irvine Ranch Water District recycled water fill station. (Irvine Ranch Water District)

A resident fills 5-gallon (19-liter) buckets in the trunk of his sedan at Irvine Ranch Water District recycled water fill station. (Irvine Ranch Water District)

As Irvine Ranch Water District explains on its fill station web page, “Recycled water is wastewater that has been treated to state-defined standards in compliance with Title 22 of the California Code of Regulations.”

Recycled water is perfectly safe to use for things like landscape irrigation – including on flowers and trees, vegetable plants and shrubs. Contractors use it for dust control at construction sites and making concrete; farmers use it to grow food and wineries use it throughout their vineyards. Even the San Francisco 49ers use it to irrigate the field at Levi’s Stadium. Fill station users are trained about the uses of recycled water at home, with added emphasis about not drinking recycled water, nor giving it to your pets or introducing it into your irrigation or plumbing systems.

There has never been a recorded case of anyone getting sick after coming in contact with recycled water and programs have been established across California.

In June, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), in partnership with Los Angeles Sanitation (LACitySan), opened a residential recycled water fill station in the parking lot at the L.A. Zoo. Residents can receive up to 300 gallons (1,100 liters) per operating day to bring home and water their lawns, flower gardens, trees and even vegetable gardens.

In the Central Valley, the City of Fresno extraction well water program provides free groundwater for residential customers to offset the use of drinking water for non-drinking uses. Extraction well water is just another form of recycled water that has spent a little more time in the ground.

Since the city’s fill station opened on July 8, 2015, 198 customers (169 residential and 29 commercial) have enrolled in the program. They have taken 6,920,000 gallons (26,195,000 liters) of extraction well water, which has been used for landscape irrigation, dust control, soil compaction and vehicle washing.

In California’s wine country, three agencies operated recycled water fill stations last year – the City of Healdsburg, Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) and North Marin Water District. This summer, two remain open, the City of Healdsburg and SCWA.

Redwood City has supplied 524,000 gallons (2 million liters) through its Recycled Water Mobile Fill Station. (Redwood City)

Redwood City has supplied 524,000 gallons (2 million liters) through its Recycled Water Mobile Fill Station. (Redwood City)

Making recycled water available in a drought has proven to be “a great outreach and educational opportunity for us to show our customers what a safe and reliable resource that recycled water is today, as well as additional benefits it can provide the community in the future as a water resource,” said David McNair, operations manager at Scotts Valley Water District near Santa Cruz, which also has a fill station.

The success of fill stations is proving that Californians are embracing recycled water and have since forgotten the initial “yuck factor.” Bret Greenwald sure has. A wastewater treatment plant operator and resident of Benicia, Greenwald has hauled recycled water for irrigating his lawn and vegetable garden, which has flourished.

“We didn’t notice any difference in taste,” he said of his garden. “Everything we ate tasted way better than vegetables we bought at the store and I would say they were the same, if not better, than produce we bought at farmers’ markets.”

Greenwald’s experience has been echoed across the state as residents are finding value in recycled water. Until more pipelines can be built to take advantage of this underutilized resource, hauling recycled water home in a tank might be around for the foreseeable future.

A passionate water conservationist, Nick Hansen runs the recycled water blog Recycled H2O and is a certified grade III wastewater treatment plant operator in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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