A tidal wave of wastewater from rapidly growing towns and suburbs is creating a headache for officials in counties north of San Francisco. Somehow, somewhere, they have to dispose of it. Small farmers who buy the water for agricultural uses have helped relieve some of the pressure. They also have eased the problem in another way. By continuing to farm their land rather than sell out for new subdivisions or shopping malls, they have put the brakes on development that creates more wastewater.
In Santa Rosa, Calif., farmer Kevin McEnnis is proud of the fact that he uses recycled urban wastewater on his five acres of broccoli, beets, scallions, and winter squash. The water is highly treated at a regional facility and is similar in quality to swimming pool water. When McEnnis takes his produce to local farmer's markets, he does not hesitate to give his customers the facts about his farming methods. He tells them he uses no pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, but he does use recycled wastewater. Other farmers have been slower to try out the treated water for fear the stigma of sewage could hurt their sales.
McEnnis believes that better education for both consumers and farmers about the benefits of wastewater would lead to wider acceptance of its use. He is committed to using recycled water rather than siphoning off fresh water from rivers and streams.
He also wants to maintain the rural character of the area and preserve open space, which means keeping farmers in business. This growing source of water is one way to give farmers a leg up and also provide water for thirsty parks, golf courses, and highway landscaping. But even with more users signing on, the city continues to seek new contracts for its wastewater. In California, even slow growth can seem fast.