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Downstreamers’ plight

Ventura County farmers worry over chloride levels, drought conditions

Posted: June 19, 2010 8:50 p.m.
Updated: June 20, 2010 4:30 a.m.

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VENTURA COUNTY — As he makes his way through a furrow that cuts one strawberry mound from the next, his steps are slow and sure, one dusty boot in front of the other.

Andy Hooper has seen his share of droughts.

He kneels down in the dry clay soil and tenderly lifts a vine of lush plum-sized strawberries from the dirt.

The berries shine in the Ventura County sun like rubies under fanning emerald leaves.

“Chlorides are a problem, especially in a drought year,” he explains. “When the water that the plant is getting is only coming from the wells, the chlorides do have a tendency to build up. When we get rain, it has a tendency to flush the salts out of the soil and flush the chlorides out.”

Heavy rains that soaked the Santa Clarita Valley and Ventura County this past winter helped farmers like Hooper — but not enough.

“Those rains did help the crop,” he admits. “It gave us a stronger crop here at the end. Those rains were welcomed, but we need another year like that.

“Technically, we’re still in a drought.”

Top crop
Strawberries are the jewel in Ventura County’s agricultural crown.

Less than a decade ago, the fruit unseated lemons as the county’s top cash crop.

Five years ago, the value of the new top crop totalled $328.6 million, according to the Farm Bureau of Ventura County.

Then the drought happened — made official by a proclamation of the Governor’s Office in June 2008.

Two years later, Hooper and his neighboring farmers are still confronting the first multiyear drought to threaten their recently crowned No. 1 money-maker.

This is the protracted drought’s third year.

And while legislators — just as farmers have been from the beginning of time — remain unable to control drought, they can still enforce legislation to limit the amount of harmful chloride in the Santa Clara River upstream to ensure the treasured strawberries receive clean water downstream.

Downstream users
The drive that follows the river west out of the Santa Clarita Valley along Highway 126, through groves of oranges and lemons, turns into a slide show of roadside strawberry stands near Ventura.

Hooper takes care of 70 acres of strawberry fields on Terry Farms.

Farm owner Edgar Terry was one of three new officers elected this month to the California Strawberry Commission — a state government agency representing more than 500 growers and 60 shippers and processors of California strawberries.

His family has been farming in Ventura County since 1890.

Today, his ranch is buzzing with work.

Farm workers, hunched over while picking strawberries, move together like the teeth of a comb dragged slowly across the strawberry field on Telephone Road a mile south of the 126.

One picked acre yields about 5,000 trays.

Other workers stack trays; each tray brimming with strawberries is valued at about $2, according to Farm Bureau statistics.

Forklift drivers carry stacks of trays to a cooled area.

A woman sells three different freshly-picked varieties at a roadside stand, and business is brisk. She has no time to sit down behind the baskets of exposed bright red fruit as motorists keep pulling over to purchase them.

A mother and daughter wearing matching tie-dyed T-shirts step out of their Audi to survey the fruit. With one hand on a hip, the mother pinches a strawberry from the Gaviota tray. She bites it.

And she moans.

Each sampling customer shares a similar experience. The strawberries are fresh, moist and firm — not salty.

“Avocado growers don’t want chlorides, either,” Hooper says. “Almost everything that’s grown in Ventura County does not do well under high-chloride conditions.

“It is more pronounced in drought times. It is more of an issue. It puts more stress on the plant in drought times, but chlorides in general are not good.

“There are very minute amounts the plants need, but it goes to the point of being toxic in a hurry.

“Chlorides, for the most part, are not put in our fertilizers. We try not to use fertilizers with chlorides, not to say that other people don’t.

“You get some through the water, typically, and that’s usually plenty. And if the water is of poor quality, then you get too much and that could be toxic.”

Hooper pinches a section of drip tape — a hose that dispenses water gradually — wrapped around the strawberries.

“We try not to waste water, try and use only what we need and flush the salt down just below the level of the roots of the plant and not use any more because water is expensive for everybody, but it’s a big part of our costs too.

“Chloride puts stress on the plant. The plant could actually starve for water under salty conditions, even though there’s plenty of water there, because it cannot pull the water out of the soil because the salts are playing a tug-of-war for the water.

“It doesn’t allow the plant to pull the water out of the soil,” he says.

“It’s ironic. They actually starve for water when the water is there.”

Clean-water guarantee
If anyone knows the problems confronting Ventura County farmers, it’s John Krist.

He wrote the book on the issue — literally.

Inside the Farm Bureau of Ventura County, in an office building situated at the mouth of the Santa Clara River a block or two from the Pacific Ocean, Krist’s book “Living Legacy: The Story of Ventura County Agriculture” is displayed for visitors the way bowls of fruit are positioned in some homes.

Krist, a veteran former Ventura County Star journalist, draws from a long career chronicling the plight of farmers.

Now serving as the farm bureau’s chief executive officer, he is the farmer’s spokesman and advocate.

“The legal limitation on chloride is in place,” he said, wasting no time getting to the heart of a brewing water war over chloride in the Santa Clara River, the issue now pitting upstream water users in Santa Clarita against downstream users in Ventura County.

“It was adopted by the (Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control) Board, approved by the state board and it remains in place,” he says.

Adopted and approved was a limit of 117 milligrams of chloride — one of two essential components of common table salt — for every liter of water arriving in Ventura County.

“The Sanitation Districts (of Los Angeles County) aren’t going to be able to achieve that objective without some additional kind of treatment,” he said, adding he’s aware of the sacrifices made by Santa Clarita Valley residents when they elected to outlaw salt-generating water softeners in their homes — a move that significantly decreased the chlorides ending up downstream.

But the decrease wasn’t sufficient to make the 117 milligrams per liter level.

“Most of the salt has been taken out of the way, but there’s still too much,” Krist says.

He says he also understands the frustration of Santa Clarita Valley residents now asked to pay for a $210 million reverse-osmosis system to rid river water of chloride.

“Some people are talking about this issue as if water-softener removal was going to be the solution. I’ve got to say, that’s not the case.

“Everybody who has been engaged in these discussions, for many years, has known all along that although brine discharge has accounted for a significant share in the chloride in the discharges from wastewater plants, it’s not the only one.

“There would be additional steps required to take out that last increment of salt.

“The ban on softeners was absolutely critical. Without it, it would have been impossible, absent of building a giant reverse-osmosis plant” larger than the one currently being considered, he added.

Plans discussed among water officials, both upstream and down, have centered around the construction of a reverse-osmosis plant along the Santa Clara River. Initial discussions had put its price tag at between $500 million and $600 million.

However, Measure S, which banned salt-discharging water softeners in the SCV, reduced that cost by at least $70 million.

Now the local sanitation officials are planning to build a smaller reverse-osmosis plant at a cost of $210 million, paid for with annual sewage rate increases to Santa Clarita Valley homeowners of $199 to $296 over four years — all to feed a salt-free diet to strawberries and avocados.

Finger pointing
It wasn’t as if Ventura farmers, looking to have someone pay for chloride-removal, hired a fancy lawyer to find a loophole in the law, farming advocates say.

The federal Clean Water Act of 1972 and the state Porter-Cologne Act of 1969 guarantee “beneficial water users” clean water. The baseline was the purity of rainwater.

With an annual revenue of more than $2 billion coming from crops in Ventura County, farmers are the beneficial users of that water.

Pure water, in terms of chloride, means no more than 117 milligrams per liter.

“We didn’t pull this number out of a hat,” said Robert P. Roy, president of the Ventura County Agricultural Association. “In the 1990s we had hearings, and 100 milligrams per liter was adopted.

“The L.A. sanitation people were very unhappy, and they complained to the Regional Board and, at the end of the day, 100 milligrams was the standard.”

According to Roy, protesting sanitation boards received a “waiver” from the Regional Board that would allow them time to conduct further studies in order to determine what chloride level actually harms “beneficial users.”

In 2006, they came up with 117 milligrams per liter.

“It wasn’t something that just came out of the air,” Roy adds.

He, like Krist, appreciates what Santa Clarita homeowners did to outlaw salt-producing water softerners but also says it just isn’t the “silver bullet” people on both side of the Santa Clara River issue thought it would be.

“So, when it came to raising money for an alternative water program, that’s when the proverbial s--- hit the fan. That’s when this whole thing imploded. People started pointing fingers at agriculture.

“They felt as they were being boondoggled, that getting rid of their softeners wasn’t the silver bullet they were told it would be. That’s where we’re at right now.”

Last summer, farmers held out an olive branch, figuratively speaking, to Santa Clarita Valley ratepayers when farming reps met with congressmen Elton Gallegly, R-Ventura and Santa Barbara, and Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Santa Clarita,.

They petitioned the federal government for an appropriation bill valued at between $10 million and $15 million to offset the salt-reducing costs of reverse-osmosis.

“Agriculture worked very closely to make sure that went forward,” Roy said. “We have been shoulder to shoulder trying to raise federal funding.

“Meanwhile, behind our backs, the sanitation boards are seeking to delay the whole process, putting it off to 2016 and then 2022.

“It’s delay, delay, delay — and it’s not fair to our farmers to be delayed any longer.

“We’re not going to allow for any more delays,” he adds. “We haven’t been the heavy in this thing.”
A watery compromise

In the fall of 2008, after the first summer of state-declared drought, farmers left their fields and drove east along the Santa Clara River, upstream to Santa Clarita.

They arrived under the banner name “Ventura County Agricultural Water Quality Coalition.”

Their mission?

“To promote and engage in a coordinated effort to ensure that water provided to the Ventura County agricultural community is of high quality and is protected from degradation by upstream sources of pollution,” according the mission statement posted on the group’s website.

Farming delegates represented at least three dozen Ventura County farms and advocacy groups, including the Ventura County Agricultural Association (Roy’s group) and the Ventura County Farm Bureau (Krist’s group).

Among their goals:
n Preserve the right of the agricultural community to high-quality water;

n Effectively communicate the threat posed to Ventura County agricultural production by water that is being polluted by upstream users;

n Gain recognition as an equal in the water-quality regulatory arena;

n Obtain regulatory relief that will ensure the protection of high-quality water for agricultural uses.

The group met at the Castaic Lake Water Agency’s Rio Vista Water Treatment Plant on Bouquet Canyon Road.

The farming coalition sat down with water officials and engineers representing the local water agency, Santa Clarita’s four water retailers, the local sanitation district and the United Water Conservation District.

Both upstream users and downstream users along the Santa Clara River met to resolve their differences and come up with a plan.

The “conventional approach,” according to the actual original Memorandum of Understanding signed with pens using different colored inks and obtained by The Signal, involves a costly process.

According to the document, reducing chloride would mean: “Constructing desalination facilities at the Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District’s Saugus and Valencia Water Reclamation Plants and a 43-mile brine line through the Santa Clara River watershed to an ocean outfall off the Ventura County Coast.”

An alternative plan to that enormously costly and disruptive proposal was worked out that day.

Dubbed the Alternative Water Resources Management Strategy, that plan promises to save money, reduce chloride and usher in “economic, public acceptance, feasibility, timing, environmental quality, and water supply benefits.”

All participants signed the plan.

Next in the series: the showdown

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