By Soumya Karlamangla
© The New York Times Co.
HEALDSBURG, CALIF. » Take a drive through this picture-perfect wine country town and you’ll start to spot them, unsubtle symbols of the state’s extreme drought.
Peeking out from side yards of cottages and behind fences of grand multimilliondollar homes are massive 4-foot plastic cubes for storing water.
For the approximately 12,000 people who live here, the containers have become a prized commodity. And, for a city struggling with an extremely limited water supply, a solution.
“I definitely think that this is a success story,” Felicia Smith, a Healdsburg official, told me.
Healdsburg is in Sonoma County, one of the first places Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a drought emergency this year because of a dwindling local water supply.
To cut overall water usage by 40%, Healdsburg officials in June put a cap on each household’s water consumption and banned irrigation of yards.
But officials didn’t want the restrictions to kill trees and shrubs.
So the city began offering deliveries of treated wastewater to residents to water their plants, as long as they have a container to store it.
On a dry 95-degree afternoon, Joan Voight walked along the side of her terra cotta-colored bungalow, where she keeps her plastic water tank. She and her husband bought it on Amazon and installed a pump, she said.
But more important is what the water serves.
“Follow the hose,” Voight said in her backyard, home to her family’s pandemic project: a thriving vegetable garden.
On the plant stalks, some as tall as her, were glossy cherry tomatoes, globes of deep purple eggplant and sweet Italian peppers.
She lifted a drooping stem to reveal a bulbous yellow pumpkin.
“This garden can’t go a full week without water,” Voight, 67, said.
The city’s water crunch pushed officials to take fuller advantage of ponds on the outskirts of town that store millions of gallons of treated wastewater, Smith said.
Wineries have long used the water — safe for crops but not drinkable — but most city residents didn’t know it existed. Nor did they have equipment to pick it up from the facility, she said.
So starting in late June, the city began delivering up to 500 gallons of recycled water to homes.
As of Tuesday, 961 households were enrolled in the program, more than a quarter of the city’s residential water accounts, Smith said.
For now at least, the city is absorbing the approximately $150,000 monthly cost of the deliveries so they remain free for residents, she said. “You can imagine we’re in a tough spot in that we’re prohibiting all irrigation,” Smith told me. “There needed to be an alternative solution.” The city’s restrictions seem to have worked. Healdsburg’s water usage is down 48% compared with the same time last year, beyond the ambitious goal that officials originally set.
For Voight, who has lived in Healdsburg for 34 years, conserving water is nothing new.
She keeps buckets in the shower to capture water that’s wasted as the tap turns from cold to hot. She saves the water from rinsing dishes and uses a special soap when she does laundry so she can repurpose the suds for her plants.
“We might as well get used to it,” she told me. “The drought makes you learn all this water stuff that you never cared about before.”
Over the past 18 months, as the pandemic and devastating wildfires kept Voight home, the backyard garden has been a rare joy, she said.
Not only can she cook delicious stirfries and curries with the vegetables, but they also serve as currency around town. She likes to swap cherry tomatoes for baked goods and fruit.
And when she is invited to people’s homes for dinner, she takes an armful of fresh-picked vegetables.
“It’s sort of like if you bring flowers or candies. We bring produce,” she told me.