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Lines drawn in salty river

Environment: Proposed hike in SCV sewage-rate fees stems from upstream-vs.-downstream water debates

Posted: June 12, 2010 10:42 p.m.
Updated: June 13, 2010 4:55 a.m.

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You and three friends sit down for lunch at a Santa Clarita Valley restaurant, and each of you orders the soup of the day.

Everyone enjoys the meal until one friend calls the waiter over to complain the soup’s too salty.

Is it?

It’s the soup of the day, same soup sampled by all.

Now imagine the chef takes all four soups away, cooks up a completely new salt-free brew and bills you substantially for the added cost.

That’s how some local water officials are framing the ongoing tug-of-war over chloride levels in Santa Clara River water.

Someone at the table of discussion over chloride — a naturally occurring component of common table salt — says the soup is too salty.

Whether chloride content in the Santa Clara River is acceptable or not, lines have been drawn in the drought-parched earth from the SCV to the ocean.

The river is where sewage from Santa Clarita Valley homes and businesses winds up — after it is first treated at one of several local plants.

But the treatment plants don’t remove chloride from the water.

It looks like someone is going pay millions of dollars at the end of the day to do just that. And that “someone” could well be Santa Clarita Valley sewage ratepayers.

The issue behind the debate over increased Santa Clarita Valley sewage fees is an old-time California water war pitting those upstream who say the water is fine, no need to spend money, and “down-streamers” who feel they’re entitled to chloride-free water.

Chloride limits
The Santa Clara River is the longest free-flowing river in Southern California and the only one that winds through a pronounced and ruggedly dynamic topography of mountains from the desert to the ocean.

Every day it flows through the Santa Clarita Valley, even though most of us only ever see water in the river when it’s rained several days in a row. The rest of the water is underground.

Follow the river west along Highway 126, through the lush corridor of perfectly trimmed orange trees near Fillmore and lemon trees near Santa Paula, and it eventually brings you to the doorstep of our neighbor, John Krist.

When Krist welcomes you to his office at the Farm Bureau of Ventura County, it’s with a good, old-fashioned handshake against a backdrop of baseball-sized avocados on wall posters.

Other posters show denim-clad farmers toiling in the dirt, rows and rows of foliage and golden fruit, all a testament to the $1.1 billion in annual farm industry revenue generated in Ventura County.

The images of planting and harvesting reflect a way of life, Krist says, that’s been cultivated in Ventura for more than 150 years.

He knows why the “up-streamer” has come to visit.

“The standard was not chosen arbitrarily,” he said getting right to the core of the debate. He was referring to the total daily maximum load — TMDL in water jargon — of chloride amounts allowed in Santa Clara River water.

“It’s based on ample scientific documentation for the level at which salt-sensitive plants begin to suffer.

“It’s the obligation of the upstream dischargers to comply with (the standard) and protect their downstream neighbors from the consequences of their contamination.”

Krist knows what he’s talking about. He literally wrote the book on Ventura farmers and their struggles over the last century and a half.

The whole chloride debate is mapped out nicely in a time line on pages 22 and 23 of his book “Living Legacy: The Story of Ventura County Agriculture.”

The book traces crops and cattle in the river valley from 10,000 years ago to 2001, when strawberries “dethroned” lemons after more than half a century of being the No. 1 crop.

Not as easy for beach-bound Santa Clarita Valley motorists to see as the corridors of oranges and lemons, strawberry fields fan out over the river’s delta, stretching across Oxnard and Camarillo.

“If everybody does what they’re supposed to do, we’ll be fine,” Krist said.

The Signal found few “up-streamers” east of the Ventura County line, however, who were “fine” with chloride levels set so low that it will cost them, collectively, at least $210 million for a salt-removing reverse osmosis plant that comes with a rate increase each year over the next four years from $199 to $296 a year.

Salt-free river
In 2008, Santa Clarita residents did “what they’re supposed to do,” as Krist would put it, when they voted for a ballot measure to make salt-discharging water softeners illegal in their homes, thus reducing the chloride level in the Santa Clara River.

Farmers downstream were getting far less salty water from homeowners here. But they maintain the water wasn’t salt-free enough. It still contained more than 100 milligrams per liter of chloride.

Up-streamers and down-streamers again returned to root of the debate: What is the definition of clean water when it comes to chloride content?

The short answer is this: Whatever the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality  Control Board says it is.

The Regional Board is one of nine in California mandated to uphold the federal Clean Water Act of 1972. Each board has nine members, and all of them are appointed, not elected.

Mary Ann Lutz is the head of the Regional Board that will answer the question of chloride levels in the Santa Clara River. She and her board set the limit.

Getting to her office is an hour-long drive east on the Foothill Freeway, skirting the south side of Angeles National Forest on the 210 to the historical town of Monrovia in the San Gabriel Valley.

Lutz’s office is in one of the town’s many uniformly sandblasted red brick buildings that are landscaped with inter-locking stone and dotted with small elegant fountains and independent store fronts.

A mountain range stands between her office and the river that flows into Santa Clarita from the Acton area.

Her handshake is also warm, but brief, as she quickly moves to answer her phone.

She treats each phone call with the same cheery animated voice and documents the call with a black pen on a corner of paper — whatever paper is exposed on her desk at the time of the call.

“I look at it like a judge,” she said when asked to describe the power her board has in settling a water war miles from her office, “to take the case in front of me and evaluate that case based on the law. And that’s how I look at my job.”

For an appointed position that pays $100 only when the board sits, and which doesn’t even cover lunch costs, Lutz and her board are expected to choose between strawberry farmers coping with salty water and homeowners coping with hard water.

“My predecessor told me that if we’re making people happy, we’re probably not doing out job right,” she said.

The level of 100 milligrams of chloride in the Santa Clara River was set by her predecessors before she took over the job.

They deemed any level higher than that to be harmful to strawberries and avocados.

Human beings, on the other hand, can live comfortably with more than double that amount of chloride in water, according to the Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Public Health.

In documents published by Santa Clarita’s water supplier, the Castaic Lake Water Agency, people can live for short periods with chloride levels that reach 600 milligrams per liter — six times the ceiling set by strawberry salt sensitivity.

The 100 milligrams per liter standard accepted in 1978 has shifted only slightly in more than 30 years.

“First, we look at the number we approved two years ago, 117 (milligrams per liter),” Lutz said. “We start from there and then we look at who benefits the most from what number and, from there, we let everyone give us all they can.”

Lutz shakes her head and smiles as she reflects on the process.

“It’s a little like duking it out,” she said.

Duking it out

Back in Santa Clarita, the residents are a little more resilient than strawberries and shouldn’t be expected to live by the standards set by a porous, delicate fruit, says one man whose fought to change the low chloride limit for years.

Steve Maguin is general manager and chief engineer for the Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District, which is expected by the Regional Board to comply with the strawberry standard for chloride content set for Santa Clara River water.

His fight is to keep the wolf from his door — which, when it comes to the Regional Board, means preventing the board from handing him a minimum fine of $10,000 for each day of non-compliance, a cost that would ultimately fall on the backs of SCV ratepayers and would really test their resilience.

“I’ve fought it for a long time,” he said of the “impossible chloride levels” with which he is expected to comply.

“In 2002, we appealed to have the level looked at because there were no scientific studies to back it up. ... Clearly, the Ventura agriculture had an interest.”

Ventura farmers responded with a scientific study that set the strawberry sensitivity threshold at 117 milligrams per liter — a small victory. But in terms of a water war, it was just one small battle.

Maguin fought his next big battle in 2006, when he appealed to state legislators to have the chloride levels reviewed.

“We’re going to continue fighting for more research,” he said.

Joining him in the fight is one local water official who is “fighting mad” about the 100 milligram per liter benchmark and who says Maguin should put more power behind his punch.

Maria Gutzeit is vice president of the Newhall County Water District and holds a bachelor of science degree in chemical engineering.

She’s taken a lunch break — ironically, at Salt Creek Grille — from her day job, in which she helps businesses comply with water discharge levels.

She, too, knows what she’s talking about.

Maguin should sue the Regional Board, she said of the sanitation district general manager’s ongoing struggle to meet low chloride levels. “If there was ever a win-able lawsuit this is it.”

The “scientific data” used by the Ventura Farm coalition to validate the recommended 117 milligrams per liter chloride level isn’t scientific at all, she said, calling it a “book bibliography.”

But Gutzeit isn’t just disappointed in what she sees as Maguin’s soft punches. She’s disappointed, she says, in herself.

On Sept. 3, 2008, she participated in a meeting of all agencies concerned about Santa Clara River chloride levels from both upstream and down: The Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District of Los Angeles County, the Castaic Lake Water Agency and the four local water retailers, the United Water Conservation District and the Ventura County Agricultural Water Quality Coalition — the latter a collective of more than two dozen farming interests.

All parties signed a memorandum of understanding to do their best to bring chloride levels into compliance.

“My district signed it but I personally regret that decision. The analogy I use for this memo of understanding is to compare it to after 9-11 and what happened to our Congress, merely told there were weapons of mass destruction.

“The complete lack of science for that 100 (mg/L) is just maddening to me,” she said, referring the limit adopted by the Regional Board.

Bottom line
Robert P. Roy, president of the Ventura County Agricultural Association, says several scientific studies conducted and funded by the local sanitation district are available for the average person online if they’re fixing to pick a side in the water war.

“Look, the bottom line is: If you were in our position, you would do the same thing,” Roy said. “If somebody dumped stuff north of you, wouldn’t you want something done?

“It’s not fair to us that we have to live with that,” he added. “We didn’t start this fight.”

Next in the series: The spicy, if not salty, history of the Santa Clara River.

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