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SCV pays to pass the salt

Environment: A local look at how Santa Clarita Valley’s water collects its chloride

Posted: June 17, 2010 10:02 p.m.
Updated: June 18, 2010 4:30 a.m.

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Snow melting atop mountains in Plumas County, some 480 miles from the Santa Clarita Valley, is as clean as state legislators demand in their Porter-Cologne Act of 1969, and it’s as clean as the Feds demand in their Clean Water Act of 1972.

Any part of the water that is not as pure as rainwater, according to both acts, is a contaminant.

The Santa Clarita Valley receives that water downstream only after it has been sent through the California Aqueduct from the Orville dam, north of Sacramento, and after it has crossed more than 400 miles of fertilized farmland, through the sea water-infused San Joaquin Delta and past scores of tiny towns and industry.

Fill a glass with tap water in most of the Santa Clarita Valley and about half that water is from Northern California.
The Santa Clara River fills the other half of that glass.

The Castaic Lake Water Agency provides northern water, which is blended with water drawn from local wells along the banks of the Santa Clara River, dipped from two different aquifers.

The 116-mile Santa Clara River passes by our homes on its way to Ventura County, where farmers of strawberries and avocados expect it to arrive uncontaminated.

“It’s the obligation of the upstream dischargers to comply with (the standard) and protect their downstream neighbors from the consequences of their contamination,” said John Krist, spokesman for the Farm Bureau of Ventura County.

Up-streamer discharge
That’s us — “up-streamers.”

Even though we’re considered downstream users by those sending us Northern California water via the State Water Project, we’re “up-streamers” to Ventura County farmers who expect us to send them uncontaminated water in accordance with the Clean Water Act.

We in the Santa Clarita Valley are both up-streamers and down-streamers, which — as some local officials say — puts us between a rock and a hard place.

Northern California water already arrives contaminated by the time it reaches the Santa Clarita Valley, says Dan Masnada, general manager of the Castaic Lake Water Agency.

“There’s a lot of constituents in state water, and chloride is one of them,” he said.

How much chloride — that offensive chemical that threatens to raise SCV sewer rates some 50 percent to pay for its removal — is already in the water we receive from Northern California?

Masnada says on average about 80 milligrams for every liter of state water — about two-thirds of the maximum allowed limit — before it’s even touched by anyone in the Santa Clarita Valley.

Although the aqueduct is lined like a swimming pool, water exposed to industry and massive agriculture as it moves through the San Joaquin Delta picks up chloride and other salts.

Seawater intrusion plagues the delta, despite levees that have stood for more than a century.

Fertilizers containing salty nitrates, and in some cases even chlorides, leach from farmland into the water.

Masnada, however, says that even though fertilizers add some chloride to the mix, it’s not a significant amount.

The problem is that many small amounts create a big amount.

Spoil the broth
Picture the route taken by northern water as a long, skinny bowl of soup, hundreds of miles long, to which scores of cooks add a pinch of salt daily.

There’s a limit to how much daily salty chloride can be found in a liter of Santa Clarita Valley water; that limit is 117 milligrams per liter.

On Oct. 10, 2008, Ventura-area strawberry farmers, through their representatives, told local water officials that any amount
of chloride higher than that in the Santa Clara River would harm their plants.

What’s good for strawberries and their farmers downstream, however, may not be good for upstream homeowners in the Santa Clarita Valley — if they’re to pay, as expected, $210 million to rid the river of salt.

“It has to do with the impact on strawberries and avocados,” Masnada said. “It wasn’t like they actually empirically determined that the water in the river at 120 parts per million had a detrimental impact on, specifically, strawberry and/or avocado crops at the lower Santa Clara River basin.

“There’s other areas throughout the state where they’re watering crops of the same sort with water that has chloride higher — much higher than a hundred parts per million.”

Dr. David Kimbrough, laboratory supervisor for the Castaic Lake Water Agency, cited avocado farmers in Irvine as one group growing sensitive crops with levels of chloride higher than 117 milligrams per liter.

“It’s all about leaf burn,” he said. “But so much goes into it. It depends on how you water, when you water, how you irrigate — by flood irrigation or drip irrigation.

“It’s not like you hit 117 and, magically, the plants die.”

Regardless, the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board expects Santa Clara River water to leave our valley containing less than 117 milligrams of chloride per liter.

That’s the immovable rock.

The challenge for up-streamers — the Castaic Lake Water Agency, the city of Santa Clarita, the local Sanitation District, developers and residents — is  to come up with a plan that meets that goal without costing a fortune.

That’s the hard place.

Salt-free river
In an office on the banks of the Santa Clara River, decoys of painted mallard ducks sit on shelves over Ron Kettle’s shoulder as he shuffles through a deluge of technical papers on his desk.

Kettle is superintendent of desert facilities operations for the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County.

Outside the door of his office on The Old Road is the gathering point for the contents of every Santa Clarita Valley shower drain, sink sluice and toilet flush.

On a tour explaining the alchemy of what he does — turning sewage into water fit to re-enter the Santa Clara River — he climbs a small scaffolding of iron and concrete.

His footsteps make deep hollow sounds as he walks across closed metal lids atop empty tanks. Finally, he stops — his toes over a bubbling, scum-covered tank of brown water — and points over a series of wells deep enough to sink a house trailer.

“The rule around here is, ‘If you fall in, we’re not coming to get you,’” he said, joking.

Kettle has a long list of treatment chores he and his team are expected to carry out daily.

Still, water discharged from his care that goes back into the river is not the pure, melted snow from Plumas County mountains upstate, nor is it of rainwater purity as seen atop the San Gabriel Mountains.

In four to five years, the Regional Board will pay a visit to ensure that water is free enough of chloride to meet the 117 milligrams-per-liter level.

It’ll take more than the current system to avoid hefty fines if the water fails the test, he noted.

Those fines could reach $10,000 for every day of noncompliance.

Two years ago, when Santa Clarita residents voted to get rid of salt-based water softeners in their homes that released salt into the river, they shaved an estimated $70 million off the cost of a chloride-removing reverse-osmosis plant that the district expects to build on the river.

Small comfort for homeowners, however, who say they cope daily with hard water and a potential four years of rate hikes.

Stiff hair
Brett and Sandy Rateaver, of Valencia, have two teenage daughters, a golden retriever and, recently, a brand new — legal — water-softening device.

They took advantage of the rebate offered during the get-rid-of-your-salt-discharging-softener period, and like the responsible upstream neighbors they’re expected to be, replaced their salt-producing softener.

“I never want to put hard water on my body,” said Sandy, a teacher. “It’s very drying on the skin. We also felt that if we coped with hard water, we would have to pay more in the long run buying products for dry skin.”

Hard water tastes bad, makes your hair stiff and ages pipes and appliances, she said.

“My mom lives with hard water in Redlands; and every time we visit, (we) can tell the difference,” she said. “The kids don’t like it.”

Brett Rateaver, senior advertising account manager for KFI AM 640 Radio, is skeptical of the whole chloride debate.

“I don’t think it’s a real problem,” he said. “I have to get some proof.”

For the Rateavers, living between a rock and a hard place means living with a more costly water softener and hard financial future paying proposed sewage rate increases.

State Sen. George Runner, who drafted the 2008 Measure S legislation to eliminate salt-discharging softeners in the Santa Clarita Valley, says SCV homeowners shouldn’t be punished for doing something good for the environment.

“The citizens of Santa Clarita have done more than what could be expected. So we shouldn’t be going back to them with an incredibly punitive measure,” he told The Signal.

Senator support
The Santa Clara River runs the across the entire breadth of state Senate District 17 and includes strawberry and avocado farmers in Ventura, Santa Clarita homeowners and independent-minded Acton horse enthusiasts.

Runner is caught in the middle of the water war trying to satisfy both his upstream and downstream constituents.

He said he understands strawberry farmers wanting a low chloride level, but said he would rather it wasn’t a level set for drought conditions.

Rain on strawberry crops in normal years flushes chloride out of the soil, enabling farmers to tolerate a higher chloride level in water, a water-agency scientist told The Signal.

“The (maximum daily allowance for chloride in river water) right now is based on a nontypical water year,” Runner said. “We’re still technically in a drought year.”

So why should up-streamers bail out farmers for what is really a drought problem and not a chloride problem?

Two-year droughts plagued Ventura farmers more than half a dozen times for most of the 20th century, with protracted droughts endured in the Depression, the late ’40s and the early 1990s.

But, that was before 2001, when strawberries replaced citrus crops as the No. 1 moneymaker in Ventura County.

Runner acknowledged for The Signal this week that upstate water “at the front end” supplied to Southern California communities arrives with a significant amount of chloride.

“We’re basically shifting that amount of chloride around rather than getting the state to be responsible for lowering it,” he said.

“What we don’t want to see now is those Santa Clarita voters (of Measure S) not see their benefits and still get stuck with a higher bill.”

Worry about expenses
Travis Lange is the Environmental Services Manager for the city of Santa Clarita.

He describes the water-quality expectations of our neighbors downstream as: “Basically, anything that’s not rainwater is not allowed to be there.

“The Clean Water Act says you have to protect the most sensitive beneficial use.”

Public health and environmental watchdog groups, both the state and federal, allow “up in the 200s for protecting humans and even endangered species,” he said.

“So it’s really the (agricultural community),” he said. “The 117 milligrams per liter is very low and is going to cost a lot of money. The city is very concerned about what that impact is going to be to the citizens.”

He adds: “And there wasn’t a whole lot of science done.”

Others are less diplomatic.

Allan Cameron, a developer lobbyist, calls the proposed rate hikes a “salt fraud tax.”

Placerita Canyon resident Valerie Thomas wrote to The Signal: “Please ask Mr. Krist and the others involved in this interesting and punitive decision why the SCV has to mitigate its salty water, much of the salinity coming from water delivered to us from the State Water Project, while Ventura County residents do not have to mitigate Lake Piru water coming from the same source.”

Rateaver, still tinkering with the nuances of his new water softener, said: “Ten years ago, I spent hundreds of dollars on water conditioner, only to toss it out 10 years later and then take the hit again buying another product.”

Homeowners will get a chance to voice their concerns at an upcoming public hearing over the proposed Sanitation District rate hikes.

Myth busting
Steve Maguin, general manager for the Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District, is anxious to bust some myths about chloride at the upcoming public hearing, called in accordance with a legislated order under Proposition 218.

“There’s some myths out there that I want to clear up,” he said. “One, people thought that removing their water softeners was all they had to do. No.

“Clearly, it was very good for the environment. It (got) the price for reverse-osmosis reduced by $70 million.”

The chloride-ridding machine was initially slated to cost between $500 million to $600 million, as opposed to the current estimated price tag of $210 million.

Other “myths” slated for dismantling, he said, include: Different segments will pay different rates, such as store owners paying less than residents; and the claim that certain sectors are to receive subsidies. Neither is true, he said.

“Everyone pays the same rate and no one is getting a subsidy,” Maguin said.

The public hearing is slated for July 27 at 6:30 p.m. at City Hall.

On a circulation memo mailed to the public about the meeting, up-streamers are urged to read the section titled: “How to Protest the Proposed Rates.”

Next in the series: Down-streamers

 

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