Written by: Lauren Sommer
Posted: July 20, 2015
Many California farmers are in a tight spot this summer, because their normal water supplies have dried up with the state’s extreme drought. In the state’s Central Valley, that’s driving some farmers to get creative: They’re looking at buying water from cities — not freshwater, but water that’s already gone down the drain.
The parched conditions in the valley, the state’s farming hub, have been crazy. Actually, “crazy wouldn’t adequately describe what we’re going through here,” says Anthea Hansen, who runs the Del Puerto Water District in the Central Valley. “Having zero water available — we’ve been in survival and crisis mode for literally 24 months now,” she says.
The evidence is right across the street from her office: a 350-acre farm field. “This land would typically be farmed in probably tomatoes,” she says.
Instead, the field is empty. Like a quarter of the 45,000 acres in the district, it’s fallowed because there’s no water. And that’s Hansen’s problem. As head of the Central Valley water district, it’s her job to find water for this farm and 150 others.
The normal supply from federal reservoirs has been cut off. There isn’t much groundwater to pump. Hansen has been buying water on the open market, but prices have gone through the roof.
What her district needs, she says, is a reliable supply — something that’s there, drought or no drought. So her district turned its sights toward the wastewater treatment plant in Modesto, Calif., just a stone’s throw from some of the driest agricultural areas in the state.
Will Wong gives me a tour of the plant, a couple of hours east of San Francisco. The smell isn’t too bad — “kind of an earthy smell,” as Wong describes it. “It’s not totally offensive.”