SALINAS, Calif.- - The Central Coast continues to be in the grip of a serious drought. Now that rainy season is over, water is more precious than ever. Farmers have found unique ways of finding water to keep their crops alive.
Did you know the water you use to wash, bathe and even flush is being re-used to keep crops growing, thanks to a unique program?
It's an idea that has plenty of others around the state taking notice.
"In 1997, I noticed that the crop had an off color to it. I took a sprinkler shot to the face on day, and I could taste the water and it was salty," said Dale Huss, general manager at Green Mist Farms in Castroville.
Huss knew the quality of the water being used for his crops just wasn't right. Seawater intrusion was turning his irrigation water into saltwater, and something had to be done or his vegetable crops wouldn't survive.
Luckily for Huss and the 12,500 acres of farmland in the Castroville region, at the same time, the Monterey Regional Water Pollution Control Agency (MRWPCA) had a plan. Officials there were already testing to see if treated wastewater could be recycled and used on these crops. Turns out it can.
Here's how it works:
The wastewater that leaves your faucet, sink or toilet, goes directly to the MRWPCA plant to be treated.
"The first thing we have to do, if there is any solid material in the wastewater, we have an area up here, we call it head-works," said Keith Israel, general manager at MRWPCA.
Wastewater goes through primary treatment, where it's filtered, mixed with bacteria and other cleaning agents, and then clarified again.
Voila, it's good to go out to the bay. That would be the end of the treatment. However, the agency takes it even further to meet health-standard requirements for crop irrigation. In other words, it goes through even more treatment.
"So this is what they call a rapid mix. It mixes the wastewater to settle out any solids that could be present," said Israel. "Now you can see the clarity of the water is greater."
One more run through rocks, sand and coal, to absorb any solid particles that could be left, then clear water comes out.
"If you had a glass of it, it won't be clouded at all," said Israel.
The water is disinfected for two hours in chlorine tanks and the final product goes to a pond on site.
"We fill this pond every day, when irrigation is needed," said Israel.
Since this program started, 60 billion gallons of this recycled water has been used to keep crops growing.
"Some of the coastal properties farmed between Castroville and Marina may not be farmed today if we didn't have recycled water," said Huss.
The project has paved the way for other communities like the drought-challenged Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency (PVWMA), which is now using recycled water from a different plant for crops in the Watsonville area.
"This facility is able to continue running at full capacity throughout the drought, so in a sense it is a drought tolerant facility," said Brian Lockwood, Senior Water Resource Hydrologist at PVWMA.
The treatment at that facility goes through the same process. The difference, instead of chlorine tanks, the Watsonville plant uses lights that emit ultraviolet rays to give the final treatment.
Lockwood said the amount of water coming through the plant is so much they are running out of room to store it in. The agency has plans to expand the plant, which could mean more water for crops.
Think about it -- every day, recycled water goes through these purple pipes and then irrigates over 12,000 acres of farmland.
Recycled water is now recognized by state water officials as an effective drought fighter for farmers. Health experts say it's completely safe. In fact, the testing period to use the water lasted several years before it went into action.
Those who use it say this prime farmland probably wouldn't be here without it.
"We're talking thousands of jobs impacted, because it could be potentially hundreds if not thousands of acres," said Huss. "It's forward thinking, it's visionary and it's part of the future when it comes to water resources in the state of California."
It all started as an experiment to save water, now this drought-beating program is keeping crops green, and farmers like Dale Huss growing strong.