California Looking to El Dorado Hills' Recycled Water to Ease Drought concerns
Proponents call it water recycling. Critics call it “toilet-to-tap.” But as the drought has taken hold in California, opposition to the idea has been drying up, and recycled water is winning...
El Dorado Hills has emerged as a model for water recycling in both the region and the state. The city of 42,000 was one of the state’s earliest converts to recycled water and remains a leader.
“We’ve been doing it aggressively for 20 years now,” said Kirk Bone, government relations director with Parker Development, the company behind the upscale, gated Serrano subdivision in El Dorado Hills.
In the late 1970s, the El Dorado County Irrigation District started recycling water as a way to help meet new discharge requirements, said Vickie Caulfield, the district’s division manager for wastewater operations. The recycled water initially was used only by a golf course and a local wood products plant.
But then the developers of Serrano came calling. They saw recycled wastewater as a means to building thousands of homes across parched ridges where cattle grazed and rattlesnakes basked.
“Water was always a problem,” Bone said. “Early on, we realized we couldn’t rely on potable water.”
The developers spent $10 million to help upgrade treatment plants and install pipelines, he said. Initially it was only used on the community’s golf course, but in the early 2000s Serrano moved to landscape the front and backyards of new homes with recycled water.
Now, weather stations with satellite links and soil monitors determine the precise amount of water needed, and the Serrano homeowners’ association controls most front-yard irrigation to conserve water, said maintenance manager David Sanders.
That water comes from the city’s two wastewater plants, which treat the sewage flowing in using an elaborate process that includes filtering through sand, coal and plastic beads. At the end, the water is run through blindingly bright banks of ultraviolet lights to disinfect it.
Some of the water is discharged to a creek flowing by, but much of it is sent by purple pumps through purple pipes to hilltop holding tanks. The color purple is commonly used to differentiate pipes carrying recycled water in systems dual-plumbed with drinking water.
“It’s called reclaimed water once it hits the purple pipe, and out it goes,” said Alan Planje, supervisor of operations and maintenance at the El Dorado Hills Wastewater Treatment Plant.
That plant and the Deer Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant now serve about 4,000 homes in four subdivisions in El Dorado Hills. But plans call for 5,000 more homes to be built at Serrano, Blackstone and other developments. Eventually, a total of 9,000 houses will be plumbed with purple pipe and connected to the system, officials said.
The city of Sacramento has not made similar strides, largely because in a typical year it doesn’t face the same kind of water worries: The city has its own water rights in the American and Sacramento rivers and does not depend on buying water from anybody else, making for a relatively cheap and abundant water supply.
But even in Sacramento, the ongoing drought has raised awareness that water is a finite resource. This year, the city has mandated 20 percent cutbacks in usage and restricted landscape irrigation to help bolster supplies for neighboring communities that also rely on Sierra snowmelt.
“The drought has given new impetus to recyling,” Mills said.