FEATURE: Model Partnership Brings Ag Reuse and Groundwater Sustainability to the San Joaquin Valley

Written by Jennifer West, Managing Director of WateReuse California

As the impacts of California’s ongoing drought collide with new groundwater requirements, growers and cities in the San Joaquin Valley are scrambling to find sustainable water supply solutions.

But before the current crisis, Tulare Irrigation District (TID) and the City of Visalia (City) developed a model exchange program that brings as much as 11,000 acre feet a year of highly treated recycled water to growers while providing the City with surface water used for groundwater replenishment.

The partnership has value beyond the water. We enjoy working with the City of Visalia.   We consider them our neighbors, our partners, our friends.  And we are lock step in developing sustainability for groundwater,” said Aaron Fukuda, General Manager of TID.

Conveying recycled water from City of Visalia to growers.

The beginning of the partnership goes back to approximately 2009 when the City was required to upgrade its aging wastewater treatment plant.  While the the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) requiring groundwater sustainability had not yet become law, the City was looking for surface water supplies for replenishing its wells.  The primary water source for the City is from groundwater basins that are critically overdrafted. 

It was the vision of the City Council to recognize that water was going to be a major factor in the valley moving forward,” said City Manager Leslie Caviglia, “The City was ahead of its time.”

The City decided to make the significant investment to move from secondary treatment to tertiary treated recycled water — making the water safe for many agricultural uses. They worked with TID to forge an agreement that specifies that for every acre foot of recycled water the City provides to TID, the irrigation district with its water rights would provide the City one-half an acre of surplus surface water to recharge its groundwater wells.

Assisting the agricultural community was another motivating factor.

We mutually exist with agriculture. It is a major economic engine in the Valley,” said Caviglia, “It was a good business decision that was mutually beneficial for both of us.”

The upgrade cost the City $140 million and took 10 years — the largest capital improvement project in the City’s 148 year history.  It was paid for using ratepayer dollars and funding from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund. TID and the City built the 2-mile pipeline that brings the recycled water to the growers with funding from a Bureau of Reclamation.

With recycled water deliveries starting in 2019, Fukuda said, in general, the growers were happy to receive a new source of water that will help them withstand droughts and thrive under SGMA implementation.

There was practically no resistance. People were saying to me ‘I want to get in line as fast as I can. I need that water,”’said Fukuda.

TID held public meetings, and Fukuda personally contacted the 20 almond, walnut, pistachio, and dairy farmers receiving the recycled water.  TID also commissioned studies with the California Water Institute at California State University Fresno to examine the safety of using recycled water for agricultural uses. 

These studies concluded that California’s Title 22 rules and regulations for recycled water are some of the most stringent in the world, and, while there will be some long-term soil salinity impacts, the water is safe for agricultural reuse. 

Fukuda believes this partnership could be a model for other cities and irrigation districts struggling with the double pressures of drought and SMGA implementation.

When put in a very difficult position, folks can work together – they can make these tough decisions,” said Fukuda.  “You make decisions today or you make it tomorrow.  I can tell you if you make it tomorrow, you might have let it go too long.” 

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