Back in the 1980s, when Santa Rosa was paying ranchers to use recycled wastewater for irrigation, dairyman Doug Beretta considered it a sweet deal.
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Santa Rosa dairy ranch owner Doug Beretta pulls elevated irrigation cylinders, Thursday, April 28, 2022, used to help water a pasture on his 200 acre ranch in which Beretta uses recycled water from Santa Rosa's waste treatment plant. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2022

“At first, the city said take all the water you can use — plus more,” said Beretta, whose Llano Road pasture is across the road from two recycled water storage ponds holding treated wastewater from homes and businesses in Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Sebastopol and Cotati.

“It was a great relationship (between the city and the farmers),” he said. “There was nowhere else for the water to go.”

Beretta is one of the 61 ranchers who last year received 788 million gallons of recycled water from the Laguna Wastewater Treatment Plant to irrigate 6,400 acres that produce milk, hay, grapes and vegetables.

The agricultural water system, with 26 miles of pipe, stretches from Rohnert Park nearly to the county airport south of Windsor.

The distribution to farmers is one of three ways the Santa Rosa plant found four decades ago to dispose annually of its now roughly 5 billion gallons of treated wastewater. The bulk of the outflow goes to The Geyers geothermal fields for use in energy production, with smaller amounts to agricultural and urban irrigation, the latter in Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park.

The arrangement in the 1980s allowed bypassing discharge into the nearby Laguna de Santa Rosa, a beleaguered Russian River tributary that previously was the main disposal route for treated wastewater.

In the early days, it was a boon for farmers.

In time, Beretta more than doubled his irrigated pasture to 200 acres, irrigating it with 80 million gallons a year of recycled water and enabling him to convert to organic milk production with a higher and more stable price.

“It was kind of a no-brainer,” he said.

Organic dairies are required to maintain cows on pasture at least 120 days a year with 30% of their grass intake from pasture.

Over time, the city stopped paying ranchers to use recycled water, and a fee schedule adopted in 2019 after a series of public hearings and engagement with ranchers set rates from $12.50 to $50 per acre-foot in four steps from 2021 to 2024.

At the top rate, assuming he uses 80 million gallons, Beretta will pay $12,275 for water that he was once paid up to $22,000 — a $34,000 swing on his bottom line, he said.

Moreover, his water allocation this year will likely be used up by the end of July, forcing him to tap one of the two deep irrigation wells he hasn’t used since 1958.

“Without the reclaimed water it’s going to force us back into the ground,” he said, referring to the use of potable groundwater.

Beretta said he’s already spent $15,000 to make sure the wells are operational. He may also have to spend up to $92,000 on truckloads of alfalfa and hay for his animals because the well water won’t irrigate all 200 acres.

Over the past decade, the city has sent ranchers an average of 1.6 billion gallons of recycled water a year, including that amount in 2019, according to Jennifer Burke, Santa Rosa Water director.

In 2020, the ranchers were limited to 1.4 billion gallons, a 13% reduction, and in 2021 their allocation was limited to 788 million gallons, a 44% cut from the previous year.

Burke said the ranchers have “interruptible contracts,” allowing their water supplies to be curbed when there is an insufficient supply and including lower rates than other customers.

The recent cutbacks were “based on recycled water availability impacted by the drought and each ranch’s past water use,” she said.

The Geysers, which receives 80% of the city’s recycled water, and urban water users are guaranteed their water supply and pay substantially more for the reliability, Burke said.

Ranchers pushed for the lowest recycled water cost they could get, Beretta said. What griped them was taking cuts in their water allocation, while deliveries to The Geysers and urban irrigators were not curtailed.

“Just really hard to pay for something and not get the amount you need,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

With a third of dairy farms seeking to fill vacancies ahead of calving season, Kiwis are being encouraged to give dairy farming a chance.

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