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UPDATE: Hearing set Monday on chloride rate hike

Posted: June 28, 2014 10:28 p.m.
Updated: June 28, 2014 10:28 p.m.

Treated wastewater discharged from the Sanitation District's Valencia Reclamation Plant flows toward the Santa Clara River. The Santa Clarita Valley's two water treatment plants were built before chloride limits were set and thus do not reduce chloride in SCV wastewater. Signal file hoto by Dan Watson

The Santa Clarita Valley’s latest bid to reduce salt in the Santa Clara River comes to a head Monday with a public hearing on a rate increase to fund a $130 million treatment system necessary, sanitation officials say, to meet state water quality standards.

The treatment system is needed to ensure chloride — a component of common table salt — doesn’t exceed 100 milligrams per liter in water in the Santa Clara River, which is used to irrigate crops downstream.

It’s a plan nobody seems to like. But if a rate increase to fund the treatment system isn’t approved by the end of this month, severe penalties would be levied against the district, officials say.

And the district takes in everyone in the Santa Clarita Valley connected to a sewer line. Fees appear on property tax bills.

“The city has been working with, and for all intents and purposes fighting this, for years now,” said Santa Clarita City Councilman Bob Kellar, who with another council member and a county supervisor makes up the Sanitation District’s Board of Directors. “We are doing our absolute best to protect our citizens.”

The chloride limit of 100 milligrams per liter of water in the Santa Clara River at the Ventura-Los Angeles county line was imposed by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, an agency charged with enforcing state water quality standards. It’s among the lowest acceptable levels for chloride set in the entire state, and considerably lower than chloride levels deemed acceptable for human consumption.

Water quality officials say the level must be met to protect avocado crops downstream and because it’s the historic level for the Santa Clara River.

Kellar said the expectation is unreasonable but unavoidable.

The agency imposing the standard is the same one that, in 2003, fined the city for pumping groundwater out from under a Canyon Country hillside and dumping the exact same water into the river in a move designed to protect homes from damage due to a high water table. Because the water dumped into the river contained unacceptable levels of naturally occurring substances considered pollutants, the city was fined $69,000, eventually negotiating that amount down to $27,000.

“It tells you just how absolutely over the top all of this stuff is,” Kellar said in a phone interview this week. “It’s exasperating for us. This 100 milligrams per liter you’re talking about — (it’s) irresponsible government at its worst.”


But both Kellar and John Gulledge, head of the Financial Management Department for the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County, say the district must swallow the bitter pill and approve rate hikes to fund the $130 million chloride-removal system or face steep fines — and still be obligated to reduce chloride in the river.

The Sanitation District currently faces a May 2015 deadline to have a chloride-removal system up and running in the Santa Clarita Valley. An extension of that deadline is necessary because there’s no way such a system could be constructed between now and May 2015, Gulledge said.

But the Regional Water Quality Control Board will not extend the deadline unless the Sanitation District demonstrates good faith by passing the rate hike, he said.

Under a rate hike plan released by the district in April, the average Santa Clarita Valley single-family home owner would see a gradual increase in his or her sewage rate totaling $16 per year in the 2014-15 fiscal year and topping out at $100 per year by the 2019-20 fiscal year.

Condominium owners would pay less; businesses would pay according to water usage and pollution levels. For uses such as light manufacturing and warehousing, the increases could be as little as $15 a year per 1,000 square feet of space by fiscal year 2019-20.

But for stand-alone restaurants it could be as high as $886 per 1,000 square feet of space each year.

Should home and business owners turn down the rate hike, which they can do under a Proposition 218 by-parcel balloting system, the Regional Water Quality Control Board could begin imposing fines — both mandatory and discretionary — in May 2015.

Those fines could easily equal $135 a year for a single-family home, Gulledge said, and might be higher. For commercial property, fines would be about $500 a year for a 5,000-square-foot office building and $5,200 a year for a 20,000-square-foot shopping center.

In addition, district residents would still face the obligation to reduce chloride in the river and would lose some of the cost-cutting benefits negotiated by the Sanitation District, Gulledge said.


The plan for a $130 million chloride-removal system has drawn sustained opposition from critics since it was released in October. Some call it a “salt tax.”

Among the criticisms are claims the Sanitation District hasn’t adequately challenged the 100 mg/L standard and hasn’t pursued legal recourse against the state.

District board members and staff defend their efforts to protect rate payers from increased charges. The estimated cost of a plan proposed in 2010 was $500 million, they note.

“We’ve talked to all the attorneys; we’ve reviewed cases,” Kellar said of the call for more litigation. “The judges up and down California have always been consistent in ruling for the state.”

One critic says the board has handled the issue poorly since 2006.

“Anyone who has been in this business knows you don’t just ignore the regional board for seven years and then say, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re out of time — we’ve got to do this,’” said Maria Gutzeit, an environmental engineer and member of the Newhall County Water District Board of Directors.

While other agencies facing chloride limits negotiated for higher allowable amounts, “We chose to just pretty much snub the regional board for the same duration and now we’re suffering from it,” she said.

Gutzeit and Gulledge agreed that passing the rate increase and beginning the process of building a chloride-removal system doesn’t mean there’s no further recourse.

“We need to be moving forward with this project,” Gulledge said. “We can still try to argue other things.”

“These limits are revisited every five years in the Basin Plan Amendment,” Gutzeit said. “A technical study could be reopened next year.”

Most alarming, she said, is that agreeing to remedy the chloride issue creates a precedent.

“There will be more regulations coming down the pipe that are going to be equally bad for us, so we can’t let this be the way we handle all future regulations,” she said.

“This limit that they have rolled over on will affect all future water management in the Santa Clarita Valley going forward,” she said. “It affects the water agencies, it affects recycled water use, it will affect all future development.”


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