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California Drought: Recycled Water Investment Paying Off For North Marin Water District

NOVATO (KPIX 5) -- This is shaping up to be a long, dry summer and water managers across the state are looking for new sources to meet their demand.  But one small district in Marin County placed a bet on a drought-proof supply of water that may pay off big this year.

The town of Novato relies on Lake Stafford for its summer water supply and like most reservoirs this year, it is dangerously low. However, the local water district actually has more water than it can even use - but there's a catch: most of it is recycled.

"Water is a commodity just like everything else and I think we, as a population, have taken it a little bit for granted," said Sandeep Karkal, General Manager of the Novato Sanitary District.

Their treatment plant has the technology to turn sewage effluent into something called "polished" recycled water that is so clean it can effectively be used for just about anything but drinking. Karkal believes we need to rethink how much "drinking water" we actually need.

"So, if you think about it in terms of 50-100 gallons per person per day, how much water do you actually DRINK in a day?" he said.

Most water we use is for other purposes, including the big one: landscaping. That's why the small North Marin Water District made a $30 million dollar investment in sending recycled water pipes out into the community. It started in 2015, supplying a pipeline to irrigate Stone Tree Golf Course. Now the district has recycled water going to a local cemetery and to the downtown area to supply car washes and irrigate commercial landscaping.

The water district has been so successful in finding uses for recycled water that it is now the dominant water source in the community.

"So for the first time, during this drought year, we will actually be able to provide more recycled water than we can provide out of our local reservoir, Stafford Lake," said North Marin Water General Manager Drew McIntyre.

The fear about recycled water usually centers on whether it's safe to drink. But that's missing the point. The idea is to use it for other purposes so there will be plenty of potable water for when it's really needed. And that's why what's at the treatment plant probably shouldn't be looked at as a waste product, but as the valuable resource it can be.

"Here, locally, we have an excess of recycled water," said McIntyre. "So, the next step is to continue to identify additional customers that we can expand to convert from potable water to recycled water."

He said recycled water could help local agriculture during the drought and expects that new housing developments will soon include recycled water lines to homes for watering lawns and gardens. The best part, Karkal says, is there's no shortage of raw material flowing into his treatment plant.

"If there was the identified need to do it," he said, "we could recycle 100 percent of it."

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