Tri-Valley Heroes: Saving lawns and 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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