Solana Beach man wants to keep lawn green with purple-pipe water


Dave Ferguson stands at the low chain-link bordering the yard of his Solana Beach home. Beneath his feet is a lawn gone brown, thanks to water cutbacks triggered by California’s four-year drought. On the other side of the fence is a slope covered by lush, green ground cover.

Ferguson, who is retired from the commercial real estate business, is trying to convince local water district officials that his lawn can easily be as green as the slope behind his house, without using a drop of precious drinking water.

His proposal is to hook up his sprinkler system, and those of his neighbors, to the purple-pipe recycled water lines that are used to irrigate the slope and other common landscaped areas in his community.

“To me it’s a no-brainer,” said Ferguson. “You have a logical, low-cost solution to an emergency situation. Why not expedite it, cut some of the red tape and go for it?”

Ferguson has been in touch with the Santa Fe Irrigation District, which provides water to the residents of Solana Beach, Rancho Santa Fe and Fairbanks Ranch, to see whether his sprinklers can be hooked up to the recycled water line that runs just a couple of feet from his backyard fence.

Officials with the Santa Fe District and the San Diego County Water Authority, an umbrella agency that serves as a water wholesaler to member districts such as Santa Fe, said they are open to the idea, but caution that there are both regulatory and financial hurdles to overcome.

Recycled water is wastewater that has been treated three times, and is fit for such uses as construction, firefighting and landscape irrigation, but not for human contact or consumption, said Michael Bardin, Santa Fe’s general manager. The water is conveyed in a separate system, which is generally marked with purple pipes, to distinguish it from the pipes that carry household drinking water.

Three state and local regulatory agencies must sign off on any new recycled water hookups, said Bardin and Toby Roy, water resources manager with the County Water Authority.

Before a residential sprinkler system could be hooked up to recycled water, said Bardin, an engineering study would have to be completed to map out safeguards against cross-contamination with the potable water system.

Bardin said the County Water Authority is working with regulators to create a template for hooking up residences to recycled water. That would save individual homeowners such as Ferguson the expense of completing their own engineering report. But homeowners would still have to pay for the costs of physically tying in to the recycled water system, which would include a new water meter.

“While it might seem simple, and the pipe is right there, there are going to be costs, and the homeowner is going to have to bear those costs,” Bardin said.

Even if a countywide engineering report is adopted, said Roy, each homeowner would probably have to prepare a streamlined site plan for recycled water. The regulatory process is likely to take several months, she said.

“These homeowners aren’t going to be hooked up overnight, even if you streamline the process,” Roy said.

Recently, Roy worked with San Diego County water agencies on a similar streamlining effort regarding recycled water fill stations. These could be set up for use by commercial entities, such as street-sweeping or construction companies. Eventually, they might be opened to homeowners, who could fill barrels for use in watering their lawns or gardens.

The Santa Fe District is looking at a variety of ways to conserve potable water, such as working with large estate owners and organizations, including the Rancho Santa Fe Association, to expand the use of recycled water, Bardin said. Also under study is “potable reuse,” a form of water recycling in which wastewater is purified to drinking-water standards.

“We have seen increased interest in recycled water with the drought. Recycled water is part of our solution, one of the tools in the tool kit,” Bardin said.

The advantage for homeowners is that recycled water is not subject to the use restrictions or water rationing imposed by the district in response to water-use cutbacks ordered by the state. Recycled water is also cheaper than potable water. There are health and safety rules regarding recycled water, however, such as restrictions on when watering is allowed, and prohibitions on runoff.

For his part, Ferguson estimated that as many as 400 homes in his community are close enough to recycled water lines to make it feasible for them to hook up to the purple-pipe system.

He expressed skepticism that regulators would go along with the idea, even as he urged them to make it happen.

“What I anticipate is, here are 500 reasons why we can’t do it, and if you don’t like those, here are 500 more,” Ferguson said. “We’re in an emergency situation. We have to think outside the box.”