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Napa County recycled water used at record levels amid drought

From the Napa Valley Wine Insider Digest: Aug. 21, 2021 series

Napa Valley Country Club golf course is lush and green, thanks to the purple pipe.

A two-year drought is helping to boost Napa County’s recycled water use to record levels. The Napa Sanitation District wastewater treatment plant provides enough non-potable irrigation water annually to fill St. Helena’s Bell Canyon reservoir and more.

Napa Valley Country Club in rural Coombsville started piping water from the plant six miles away in late 2015. That allows it to depend less on a well in an area where groundwater levels have long been a concern.

“We don’t push our well very hard at all,” Napa Valley Country Club General Manager Ari Kreisler said. “We try to focus on recycled water as much as we can.”

Recycled water allows Napa Valley Country Club to stay green without guilt even as some golf courses in the state have let areas go brown. It used 159-acre feet of recycled water last year, enough to fill 78 Olympic-size swimming pools.

“It’s a game-changer for us —100%,” Kreisler said.

Creating recycled water from wastewater in Napa County are NapaSan, American Canyon, Calistoga and Yountville. NapaSan is by far the leader, producing about 3,700-acre feet annually and maintaining 27 miles of purple pipe.

The pipes that deliver recycled water are in fact purple, a deliberate color choice to let people know the pipeline carries non-potable recycled water rather than regular drinking water.

NapaSan about a decade ago launched a drive to increase recycled water use, adding 15 miles of pipe at a cost of $37 million and making $15 million in treatment plant upgrades. With the drought kicking in, the move is benefitting golf courses, vineyards and other users.

“We’re glad we have the water available to serve our customers,” NapaSan General Manager Tim Healy said.

Recycled water is becoming a hot commodity amid the drought. Here's where it all starts.

But even recycled water supplies aren’t immune to drought. Increased water conservation and less groundwater seeping into sewer pipes from big rains mean less water to recycle.

“We’ve always said recycled water is drought-resistant; it’s not drought-proof,” Healy said.

NapaSan has met recycled water demands. The future has some question marks, especially if the city of Napa someday taps into recycled water to boost drinking water supplies.

One thing seems clear: droughts make NapaSan’s recycled water an even hotter commodity.

Liquid gold

For a commodity that seems like liquid gold these days, NapaSan recycled water has a humble beginning.

It starts out in the toilets and sinks of homes and businesses in the city of Napa. Sewage that reaches the wastewater treatment plant near Napa County Airport is cleaned to meet state standards for non-potable uses such as irrigation, though not for drinking.

Recycled water-only pipes serve farms, homes and businesses in the rural Coombsville and Carneros areas, in the airport industrial area and near Jameson Canyon. Two filling stations allow water to be loaded into trucks to be hauled to vineyards and farms distant from the pipes.

Customers in 2020 used 3,050-acre feet. Of that, 42.5% went to golf courses, 30.8% to vineyards, 13.2% to commercial landscaping, 5.1% to NapaSan uses, 3.9% to cemeteries, 2.3% to industry/fire suppression, 1.6% to schools and 0.6% to parks.

“This year, we’re ahead of that pace,” Healy said.

During June of 2020, the district provided 140 million gallons of recycled water. That grew to 210 gallons this year, in part because of higher use for vineyards, a district report said.

Customers came forward even during the winter because of the scarcity of rain. For example, Healy said, grape growers in the Carneros region who usually fill their small reservoirs with creek water turned to recycled water.

Demand for NapaSan recycled water has steadily grown over the years, from just over 1,000-acre feet in 2012 to about 2,000-acre feet in 2018 to about 3,000-acre feet last year. All of that is within that 3,700-acre-foot annual dry weather capacity.

Customers pay $1.93 per 1,000 gallons for recycled water during the dry season, not counting piping or trucking costs. NapaSan passed the milestone in 2020 of producing more recycled water than water it discharges into Napa River.

The question is whether recycled water supplies can keep up with future demand in the decades to come, especially if droughts intensify. The district is updating its wastewater master plan and that should help provide the answers.

Recycled water by cities

Most of the NapaSan recycled water originates as city of Napa sewage. Yet recycled water lines from the water treatment plant only brush the city.

One line extends past Napa Valley Commons to Imola Avenue and east into rural Coombsville, where groundwater is a concern. Another crosses under the Napa River and to the rural Carneros wine country. That allows for only limited city use.

There are customers in the southern city, such as the Kennedy Park ballfields, Napa Valley Commons and portions of Napa Valley College and the Gasser area, city Deputy Utilities Director Joy Eldredge said. The Carneros line will serve the under-construction Stanly Ranch development.

But the heart of the city has no recycled water lines, which must be kept separate from potable water lines. Landscapes there are irrigated with drinking water.

“It’s extremely expensive to build new systems, as far as new pipelines going out,” Eldredge said.

There’s another way the city could tap into recycled water: blend it with drinking water for delivery to city taps. The city and NapaSan plan to study the possibility.

Critics of the concept have arisen in the past in places such as San Diego and Los Angeles. “Toilet to tap" has been their rallying cry, playing on a yuck factor to try to build opposition.

Eldredge prefers another name to "toilet-to-tap."

“Today, it’s called ‘pure water.’ It basically means it really has been purified,” Eldredge said.

One possibility is to bring recycled water to the city’s water treatment plant in Jameson Canyon to be treated to higher standards. Another is to do additional treatment at the NapaSan plant and then inject the water into a nearby city water line.

California doesn’t allow for the use of recycled water in this way, at least, not yet. Eldredge expects state regulations to change in the coming years. San Diego is poised to build a "pure water" system, with the city saying proven technology can turn recycled water into reliable, safe drinking water.

NapaSan isn't Napa County's only producer of recycled water.

American Canyon produces recycled water at its wastewater treatment plant near the wetlands. That water is used for irrigation within the city, though many of the planned lines have yet to be built.

In 2019, the city delivered 282-acre feet of recycled water, enough to fill 139 Olympic swimming pools. Its plant has the capacity to produce 1,000-acre feet annually, according to city reports.

Customers included the Walmart Highway 29 frontage, the west American Canyon Road streetscape, a number of city parks and various construction projects. The planned, 1,000-home Watson Ranch community is to use 250 acre-feet annually for commercial and public landscaping.

In addition, the city makes recycled water available to residents for their own irrigation use. As of late July, 133 people had signed up to pick up water from city fill stations.

But some people said they aren’t strong enough to lift the city-approved containers at the fill stations into their vehicles, Maintenance and Utilities Director Felix Hernandez told the American Canyon City Council on July 20. In response, the city is launching residential deliveries and 33 people signed up. 

Calistoga in 2018 produced 541-acre feet of recycled water and reused 60% of its wastewater flows, according to the 2020 Countywide Water and Wastewater Municipal Service Review. It delivered recycled water to 15 customers.

Yountville in 2018 produced 382-acre feet of recycled water for the Vintner's Golf Course and six rural vineyards — Chimney Rock, Regusci, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Clos du Val, Mondavi/Wappo Hill and Beringer. It reused about 93% of its treated wastewater, the study said.

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.

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