To Fetch a Pail of Water

Back in April I wrote a post (“Measuring Up”) about how to read your water meter to learn just how you use the water that you pay for every other month. My wife Nancy and I certainly put our readings to good use: we now find ourselves using only about 36% of our water allocation. Although we haven’t yet replaced our final set of sprinklers with drip, we will do so very soon which should cut our use even further. However, we did take a huge step that should not only save us water, but will also save us a great deal of money (on the order of $3,000 per year, as I figure it, between water, electricity, and service): we filled in our swimming pool. While we didn’t do it entirely for the water savings, I’m very glad that I won’t have to periodically compensate for evaporative losses. And while we do miss the look of the pool, we’re excited about the possibilities that the extra yard space brings.

With the pool gone, our largest remaining use of water, by far, is for irrigation. We currently use about 225 gallons every day that we irrigate our reasonably drought-tolerant yard; doing that twice each week means that our yard is consuming roughly 1,800 gallons of water each and every month. Swapping the front sprinklers for drip should make a nice dent in that, but we’ll still be using at least 1,000 gallons per month just to keep our vegetables growing and our yard looking decent. Looking for more ways to save, I plan to swap out our sprinkler controller for one that is more high-tech: I’m looking at one from rachio (and available from Home Depot) that not only adjusts its cycles based upon the weather and the seasons, it is programmable and operable from an iPhone. Whether or not it saves much water, I like having access to it while I’m traveling, and I’m sure that its programming interface will be a lot better than the primitive ones found on most sprinkler controllers.

My earlier post focused on reducing your demand for water. But once you are using a minimal amount of water, is there anything one can do about the supply side? While we could drill a well (it is legal here), I’m not sure I’m ready to jump through the hoops necessary to get a permit (I’m told you have to deal with both the county and the city to get one), and I’m not excited about the costs of drilling a well. At some point I may change my mind, but for now there is a much cheaper, much simpler solution to address the supply side of our current water problem—one that I’m pleased to say is thanks to the City of Redwood City. While this particular solution can only take us so far, and will take some effort on our part, it has the potential to completely wipe out that 1,000+ gallons per month that my wife and I need for our yard.

Just what am I talking about? Recycled water.

Starting with a pilot in 2000 and expanding to a full-blown plant in 2004, Redwood City, San Carlos, Belmont and the West Bay Sanitary District joined together and constructed the South Bayside System Authority (nowadays called Silicon Valley Clean Water), our wastewater treatment plant. You’ll find it just past the dog park in Redwood Shores, at 1400 Radio Road:


The plant treats our wastewater, removing 97% of all solids, organic material, and pathogens. The resulting “high quality effluent” is then discharged into the deep water channel of the San Francisco Bay. Which is nice enough as far as it goes, but in 2006 Redwood City built an adjoining recycled water facility that puts some of the treatment plant output through additional filters plus a disinfectant stage, resulting in water that is just one step below the level approved for human consumption. Then, Redwood City added pumps and pipes to send the recycled water to various sites on the Bay side of Highway 101.

Each year since the recycled water facility was added we’ve been using increasing amounts of recycled water. In 2014 Redwood City used 750 acre-feet, or 244,388,570 gallons, of recycled water. Since each gallon of recycled water that we do use is a gallon of fresh water that we don’t have to use, last year the city saved nearly 250 million gallons of fresh water—leaving the fresh stuff for more critical needs, such as drinking, cooking and bathing.

Redwood City is now evaluating the means to bring the purple pipes that carry recycled water over to the west side of the freeway, where it will be available to some of the newly constructed office buildings and to the Stanford in Redwood City project, among others. In the mean time, for those of us who don’t have wells or recycled water piped to our homes, Redwood City is providing a sweet alternative: the Residential Recycled Water Fill Station, at the city’s Public Works yard (1400 Broadway Street, near Woodside Road). For anyone who has taken their mandatory training class, an almost limitless supply of recycled water (with some caveats; read on) is available. And it’s free! That’s right, free. So we can drastically cut back on our water use by watering our yard with free recycled water. Of course, it won’t save us money—at the current rate 1,000 gallons costs us about $4.70—but this isn’t about saving money, it’s about saving water.


My wife and I just took the training class—which ran less than an hour—at the Public Works yard. We had a great time and learned a lot. There were just the two of us plus one other resident in the small conference room, along with Phil Eliason, our instructor for our 8:00 a.m. class. According to his business card Phil is a “Cross Connection Control Specialist” and a “Recycled Water Specialist” for the City of Redwood City. As you might expect from his titles, he was very knowledgeable about his subject! He taught us both where we can use the water, and how to use it safely. We talked a bit about the process of transporting the water and where we might get appropriate containers, and then he took us out into the yard to see how we will get our fill.

Earlier I mentioned caveats, and in our class we learned all about them:

  • You must be a Redwood City resident, and you need to be using the recycled water within Redwood City’s service area (so you can’t take it to Fremont, for instance).
  • The person transporting and then applying the water must have taken the training class. Upon completing the class you get a wallet card that proves that you did so.
  • You have to transport the water yourself: they don’t deliver! While this can be a sticking point for many people, you can fill anything from a one-gallon container up to a huge 300-gallon tank; whatever you can make work. You do have to provide your own closed containers, and they need to be approved by the Water Resources Management Program folks. I happen to have a small pickup truck, and so I’m thinking about getting a 150-gallon flexible water bladder.
  • You can take a maximum of 300 gallons per visit (but there are no other limits that I’m aware of; you can visit multiple times per day, if necessary). Be conscious of the weight: water weighs 8.345 pounds per gallon, so 300 gallons would weigh 2,500 pounds, which is more than many vehicles are rated for. My truck, for instance, will be weight-limited to about 100 gallons, so I imagine that we will only take and use about 800 gallons of recycled water per month in the summer. Which is still very good, of course!
  • The water can only be used for irrigation, water features, and/or for outdoor washing (power washing, etc.). You can’t drink it, or bathe in it, or put it in your swimming pool, of course. But I like the idea of using recycled water to keep a recirculating water feature topped off. Do note that the water is more conducive to algae growth, however.
  • By no means can recycled water be used in any way that might let it get into our potable water system. You should even be careful not to let it get into your well casing in the event that you have a well (but if you do, you probably don’t need recycled water).

Since the recycled water is only plumbed on the east side of Highway 101, and since the Public Works yard is on the west side, the city trucks the water to the yard using a trailer with a 2,000 gallon tank:


When you drive to the yard and show them your card, they’ll fill up your approved containers (weekdays from 9-11 a.m. and 1-3 p.m.). Because the water is not piped to the facility, there is the small risk that the trailer will be empty by the time you get there; not having done it yet I can’t say how often that happens or how quickly they’ll refill the tank. Once home, you can either use the water directly from the container in your vehicle, or you can transfer it to rain barrels from which you can then irrigate your garden.

The recycled water is supposed to be quite good—almost (but not quite) drinkable. It does contain more minerals and more salt than our tap water, so some plants—such as Japanese Maples—may not like it. But most plants should do just fine. It should even be good enough for edible plants, including fruits, vegetables and herbs—but note that you should wash those edibles off with potable water before consuming or cooking them.

Interested? The class schedule and instructions for signing up can be found on the Public Works Water Conservation page of Redwood City’s website (keep checking; they only put one month’s schedule up at a time). Like the water, the class is free—it will only cost you a bit of time. Then you’ll need to get any needed containers for transport. But for a bit of effort up front, you get access to an almost unlimited supply of water that you can use on your yard—water that you needn’t pay for and isn’t counted against your allotment. What could be better?

Jack and Jill went up the hill, to fetch a pail of water. Had they lived in Redwood City, they could have gotten recycled water. And they wouldn’t have had to go up a hill to get it, perhaps keeping Jack from breaking his crown…

In case you haven’t noticed, Pool Patio & Things is closing at the end of July (their Campbell store is closing even sooner, at the end of June). The owner has decided to retire, so the stores will close and any furniture remaining after the 25% off sale will be transferred to their warehouse in Fremont. The business will continue for a while out of the warehouse, but I was led to believe that it will not go on for long, since the business owner is retiring.


According to one of the store employees, the “Franciscan Forge” building plus an adjoining lot have been sold; the new owner will be dividing the building into smaller spaces and leasing them out as offices.

Pool Patio & Things will be missed. But if you have need for any outdoor furniture you might want to give them a visit sooner rather than later: the sale is on now, and there are some pretty good prices.

5 thoughts on “To Fetch a Pail of Water

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