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Finicky fruits and cubby-holed bureaucrats

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Posted: June 20, 2009 3:58 p.m.
Updated: June 21, 2009 4:55 a.m.
Drive out Highway 126 from Castaic Junction to the Pacific Ocean and take a good look at the orange and lemon groves, strawberry patches, flower factories, palm forests and avocado jungles that line the Santa Clara River. All told, that's a $700 million industry annually.

And now, some cloistered bureaucrats in Sacramento think the good people of the Santa Clarita Valley should subsidize the growers' production, just because we live here and drink water.

No, it's not quid pro quo. We aren't sucking the river dry. But dollar for dollar, that's what it would mean.

It seems we are poisoning certain crops every time we wash our dishes and flush our toilets.

The problem isn't our detergent or our poop. The culprit is chloride - a salt that is not harmful to humans but which, in moderate concentrations, neuters the soil for salt-sensitive crops, specifically avocados and strawberries.

The finicky fruit don't like our "used" water when it reaches them downstream.

The lemons and oranges don't mind. Grapes are particularly impervious - the Ventura County farmers grew lots of them 100 years ago - and the palm trees couldn't care less.

It's those darned avocados and berries that get all crazy when the chloride level exceeds 120 milligrams per liter. That's 120 parts salt for every 1 million parts water.

How little is that? It's so little that even the drinking water we receive from the State Water Project has more chloride in it.

That's right. Castaic Lake Water Agency officials - the people responsible for importing our state water - say that in drought years when the water flow is low, it's saltier than normal.

The amount of salt is fairly constant; there is less water to dilute it and flush it out in a drought. Today, the chloride level is around 200 parts per million in the state water when it reaches us.

Think of it this way. The Great Lakes in the Midwest get a lot of in-flow from rivers, so they aren't particularly salty. They've got two to 25 parts per million of chloride, depending on the lake.

By contrast, Utah's Great Salt Lake doesn't get much precipitation, so it is, well, a salt lake.

Chloride isn't one of the substances that the Castaic Lake Water Agency cleans out of our state water at its Rio Vista water treatment plant because, again, chloride isn't harmful to humans. To do so would require a new treatment facility that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

And guess who would have to pay for it?

In California, the state agency that's responsible for regulating the nasty stuff in our water is the Regional Water Quality Control Board. This agency is telling us that because those avocados and strawberries are suffering, we've got to reduce the level of chloride we send downstream to a measly 100 parts per million.

And actually, it isn't telling "us." It's telling the SCV Sanitation District, which is the county agency that's responsible for cleaning our wastewater and sending it downstream.

So the Sanitation District did a study. It determined that "self-regenerating" (rock salt) water softeners were the single biggest contributor to our valley's so-called chloride problem, accounting for 49 percent of it.

Last fall, the Sanitation District convinced local voters to outlaw this type of softener.

Get rid of these chloride generators, they said, and we can avert the need to build a $500 million chloride treatment plant that would quadruple our sanitation district bills (which appear on our property taxes).

Wrong. The state says it isn't enough to outlaw the softeners. We might have solved part of the problem, the state says, but we've still got to build a $250 million treatment plant and pay for it ourselves.

Voters feel like they've been sold a bill of goods, and Sanitation District board members - including Santa Clarita Mayor Frank Ferry and Councilwoman Laurene Weste - feel like they're getting the runaround from the state.

Where does the buck stop? The county sanitation district? The state water quality board?

Neither, say the state folks. They blame the feds. They say the federal Clean Water Act "requires the California Regional Water Quality Control Board to develop water quality standards that are sufficient to protect beneficial uses designated for each water body found within its region."

There's the rub. Whose "beneficial use" trumps whose? The quarter-million residents of this valley who would like to continue to drink water and wash their dishes and go to the bathroom - or the avocado farmers who can't handle the water we're sending them?

There are only so many options.

Sixty percent of us could move and tear down our houses so nobody else can move into them, because 60 percent of our water is from the state project. We can't live here and shut off the tap, so 60 percent of us will have to leave.

Maybe we can have a lottery.

Or the avocado and berry farmers can switch to growing oranges, which can handle chloride levels of 240 ppm, or lemons and limes at 350 ppm to 600 ppm, depending on the variety.

Or those avocado and berry farmers can put up the $250 million to remove the chloride if they don't like it.

Or the state can pay to nip the problem in the bud and get the chloride out of the state water at its source.

Or we can lobby Congress to change the Clean Water Act (as if).

Or we can sue the state Regional Water Quality Control Board over its cockeyed interpretation of "beneficial use." (It probably will come to that.)

Or we can start recycling 100 percent of our water and send none of it downstream.

That would be interesting. The one thing that prevents the Pacific Ocean from intruding into the water table beneath the Santa Clara River Valley is the water in the Santa Clara River. Shut it off and the avocado farmers will know what chloride really looks like.

Bottom line? One state agency sends us water with chloride levels that another state agency finds objectionable.

The idea that Santa Clarita Valley residents should be forced to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to clean chloride out of state water just because it runs through our valley is totally unconscionable.

These petty state bureaucrats need to get out of their cubby-holes, talk to each other, solve their differences and leave us out of it.


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