Tri-Valley Heroes: Saving lawns, drinking water

Gallaghers presented with innovation award for prompting DSRSD's residential recycled water program

When Dan and Rosalie Gallagher came up with the idea for the Dublin San Ramon Services District to offer free recycled water to residents and businesses for landscaping, they were as concerned with saving the people in the Tri-Valley as they were with protecting the plants.

What they didn't know was they were about to create the state's first residential recycled water program -- and a wildly successful one, at that.

In 2014, DSRSD's main water supplier, the Zone 7 Water Agency, announced the years-long drought made it unlikely it could supply all the potable water the district needed to get through the year.

"It was awful," Rosalie said. "I was just scared we weren't going to have enough water to drink, so I knew my plants weren't going to have enough."

An avid gardener and professional horticulturist, Rosalie went to her husband, the operations manager at DSRSD, a local water- and sewer-service provider.

"At the time, I was going around to fire departments, telling them we may not have enough water," Dan said. "If the reservoir is empty, and you open up a fire hydrant, nothing might come out. I don't think people realize how close we were."

He and Rosalie hatched the idea in January 2014 that if DSRSD's plentiful supply of recycled water -- which is wastewater that is treated to remove impurities and solids -- could be distributed to the public, they could use that water to keep plants alive, and potable water that would have been used to water those plants could be saved for drinking and cooking.

Since the time the program opened in June 2014 through early last month, DSRSD had provided 25 million gallons of recycled water to 3,440 registered users across the Tri-Valley, the Bay Area and beyond.

More than 30 district staff members and their managers have been involved in creating and running the residential recycled water fill station in Pleasanton and the temporary station in Dublin.

Before the innovative program came to fruition, leftover recycled water that wasn't sold off to nearby cities through purple pipes would be pumped out to the bay and dumped, Dan said.

He knew there had to be a better way, so Dan contacted the California Department of Public Health to figure out how he could make recycled water fill stations a reality.

"The first response I got was, 'Oh, no you can't do that,'" he said. There was no way recycled water could be distributed safely, he was told.

He said he wouldn't let that answer stand. He knew recycled water was safe when handled properly, and any adult could purchase actually dangerous substances, like poisons, at any home goods store and would only be warned with a small label.

"How is it you can go to Home Depot or Lowe's and get that sort of thing, but I can't send people home with recycled water?" he asked.

That got the regulator's attention.

Over the next few months, he worked on developing instructions for handling and transporting the water safely.

When the California Department of Public Health gave its approval to move forward, he went before the Regional Water Quality Control Board to get its go-ahead. DSRSD got regional approval to begin the recycled water program on June 3, 2014.

Two weeks later, three spigots were installed at the district's wastewater treatment plant on Johnson Drive in Pleasanton, and the program was opened to the public. Dan said he thought three taps would be overkill.

"I had no idea how exponential this was going to become," he said.

By last April, word had gotten out, and the Pleasanton fill station was overwhelmed. "At times, we had people backed up to the exit on 680," he recalled.

The bumps were smoothed out by adding more taps to the Pleasanton station -- there are 33 now -- and opening a second fill station in Dublin from June to October.

The program has been emulated by water agencies in the Bay Area and Central Valley, and Dan said he's been getting inquiries for advice from agencies across California.

The idea of providing recycled water to locals just made perfect sense, said Rosalie, who earned her bachelor's degree in ornamental horticulture and worked designing and installing landscaping at businesses and residential yards.

It was her idea to open a residential fill station, and Dan said her nudging and encouragement pushed him through the regulatory and logistical roadblocks.

Dan has spent his entire career in water management, starting with a job straight out of college at a treatment plant in Peoria, Illinois.

Throughout the years, he's seen attitudes change toward conservation and recycling of resources. He's hoping residential recycling centers will show the public that recycled water isn't a strange and dangerous substance.

Given the propensity for droughts in California -- and the uncertainty as to whether an El Nino this winter will help solve the region's water supply problems -- using recycled water is probably going to be a part of the region's new normal, he said.

Now when he looks around the Tri-Valley, he sees green lawns, but always with a bright green sign: "Recycled Water Keeps this Garden Green."

"The biggest benefit we're going to get from this in the long-term is public acceptance of recycled water," he said. "It's our future."

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2 people like this
Posted by Kim
a resident of Blackhawk
on Nov 10, 2015 at 8:20 am

Ai commend this couple for their innovation and determination to find a solution to keeping plants alive. But this is still a short term fix and if people think there are ways to get water, they won't be making long term changes to their lifestyle and their habits. We all have to change our way of thinking and get away from green lawns and non- drought resist landscaping. And since there are creative people out there, can you help us get started on using grey water for individual house use? Why are we using potable water to flush our toilets? In countries in Europe there are two water lines feeding every household: potable for sinks and the rest grey water. Can't we do that here? We've got to take drastic measures NOW! Fining people in Blackhawk for using too much water is not the answer because that doesn't phase them: they can and will pay the fines and still use too much water.

10 people like this
Posted by Chip
a resident of San Ramon
on Nov 10, 2015 at 8:23 am

This is a great article about perseverance! Dan and Rosalie should be given some community award for coming up with this idea. But I do have one question...and I hope Dan and Rosalie read this, so that they can figure this one out and help us all get to the next level of conservation. The question is; why can't our communities come up with a way to install an infrastructure that gets this recycled water back to our homes, so that everyone can use this water to take care of their yards? I know it seems far fetched, and would probably cost millions of dollars to do so, but I'm sure that's what everyone thought when they first thought of putting plumbing in houses in the first place, back in the days when people used to have walk to their wells and pump water into a bucket! Or when the first cable company came up with the idea of putting TV signals in cable and running them to your home...imagine how crazy everyone thought those trail blazers were at first?! At the very least, the first step could be to modify our community's master plan, such that no new housing can be approved that isn't built with separate plumbing for recycled water for the yards. It might take years to complete a project of this magnitude, but someone should do an economic/feasibility study....think of the jobs it would create for the years it would take to complete...just like it took years to get cable in our homes. Thanks for reading and Happy Veterans Day to all of our Veterans!

Like this comment
Posted by San Ramon Observer
a resident of San Ramon
on Nov 10, 2015 at 1:53 pm

San Ramon Observer is a registered user.

I have been capturing and storing rainwater on my property for 6 years. I have 7000 gallons of above ground water storage. I would be able to capture 20,000 gallons with an underground tank or a water pillow under the house, but that was too expensive for me and I didn't need that much. These could be built into all new developments but I don't know any developer that is doing it.

Here are some links to learn how to do this.

Web Link

Web Link This is the company that designed and installed my system 6 years ago. It is very busy all the time now.

Here's the first article I wrote about my rainwater system in 2009.

Web Link

This isn't something new. The ancient Greeks and Romans were doing this thousands of years ago.

2 people like this
Posted by Dan Gallagher
a resident of another community
on Nov 10, 2015 at 4:26 pm

I read Kim’s comment and I agree completely that the recycled water fill station is indeed a short term fix. We opened the fill station in 2014 hoping the drought would only last one year, and now here we are finishing our second year with mandatory water use restrictions. Like the rest of the community we hope that the drought ends soon! I think it’s important to note that people really are starting to change their behavior, and we have seen quite a few yards replaced with less water intensive plantings. Moving toward using grey water for irrigation will take time, money, and realistic regulations.

Regarding Chip’s comment, I really wish we could get recycled water to every household. I know Rosalie and I would love it! However, the reality is that we will not have enough recycled water to supply every possible need. DSRSD has concentrated its efforts to get recycled water to parks, schools, golf courses, and other public areas. It is the most cost-effective way to save the most drinking water by running purple pipes to large sites that use a lot of water. Once we get all of those public areas converted to recycled water irrigation, we already know that we will have maxed out our summertime supply. The next challenge is to come up with a good plan to use all the recycled water that we can produce during the winter, when we don’t need to water landscaping.

Like this comment
Posted by Bob Berschauer
a resident of Danville
on Nov 12, 2015 at 8:25 am

This recycled water program is just what we need. We also need a way to store the water on our property. A large water tank underground with a pumping system to feed our sprinkler systems would complete the loop. I would also plumb tub, shower, and sinks to fill the tank.


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