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High cost of salt wars

Environment: Upstream residents of Santa Clarita face an uphill battle against rate hikes

Posted: June 21, 2010 10:22 p.m.
Updated: June 22, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Chloride, seen magnified here, is one of two components of common table salt. The other component is sodium.

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The victor of a water war over chloride levels in the Santa Clara River, pitting upstream suburbanites against downstream farmers, could be determined with the flourish of a pen on two emerging fronts this summer, The Signal has learned following a month-long investigation.

In the end, however, Ventura County farmers are likely to win this battle, according to the top executive on the board expected to make that decision.

“If you’re going to base the level of chloride on drinking water levels, you would have to de-designate the ‘beneficial users’ of the Santa Clara River, which are farmers,” said Samuel Unger, interim executive officer of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board. “And there are tons of agricultural firms along the river.”

The level of allowable chloride in drinking water, as determined by the Environmental Protection Agency and by the state Department of Public Health, is 250 milligrams per liter.

The level allowable by “beneficial users” in Ventura County — namely, strawberry and avocado farmers, is 117 milligrams per liter.

In order to meet the lower standard, the local sanitation board must build a salt-ridding reverse-osmosis plant costing an estimated $210 million, prompting a four-year hike in Santa Clarita Valley sewer rates.

The move to “de-designate” beneficial users is rare but not impossible — and not without precedent.

“As far as I know, only one community has done it within the last 10 years by the people living along the Ballona Creek near Marina del Rey,” Unger said.

“It’s a pretty high hurdle to get over.”

On one front, Santa Clarita residents can reject proposed rate hikes simply by filling out protest forms mailed to homeowners by the sanitation department.

On another front, they have an opportunity to effectively change the face of the state-appointed board that declares the water war victor.

Both moves carry costly implications.

“It’s not as simple as saying, ‘We like 250 milligrams per liter because we don’t want to see spots on our glasses,’” Unger said.

Protest forms
On the more immediate emerging front, all it takes to kill the rate hikes is a little more than 34,000 signatures on a circular that was mailed last week to local property owners who have sewer hookups.

“If you get that number of signatures, then they cannot move forward an assessment of any kind, which means they cannot move forward with a rate increase,” said John Kilgore, supervising engineer in the financial planning department of the Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District.

Kilgore and his team drafted the circular mailed to about 68,000 property owners connected to the sewer line advising them of their rights, under Proposition 218, to effectively stop the hikes.

Open seats on board
In pursuing the second option, all it takes to put pro-upstream people in the chairs of the nine-member Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board is to get the right candidates to apply and to then petition state decision-makers to ensure their appointment.

How?

Three of the nine spots on the Regional Board are vacant, and two become vacant at the end of October, leaving a majority up in the air, The Signal has learned.

It would be possible to stack the deck — five in favor of upstream users — through effective canvassing this summer.

Before you lunge for your pen, however, there are some painful consequences to consider, Kilgore says, and some stark observations to acknowledge about the future.

Cloudy water
There was a time when the biggest concern on the Santa Clara River was how many steelhead trout you could pull from it.

Those times, like the trout, are gone.

Today, Ventura County downstream farmers of strawberries and avocados are fighting to ensure that the river’s water contains no more than 117 milligrams of salty chloride per liter as it flows west to the ocean from Santa Clarita Valley residents upstream.

Tomorrow, the debate over river purity could focus on some other contaminant, just as costly to remove as chloride, Kilgore said, citing internal discussions ongoing at the sanitation district.

One of many possible contaminants likely to come up for future consideration are the number of powerful pharmaceuticals that enter the water system which, although in trace amounts, remain consequential as they accumulate and interact, Kilgore said.

“Emerging pollutants are going to want to be regulated,” he said. “So, you’re going to want a sophisticated plant in place.”

The rate hike protest circular his department mailed to rate users includes a “cut here” dotted line “Protest Form” for upstream users of the Santa Clara River to say “no” to rate increases of $199 to $296 over four years.

But before they sign and snip, Kilgore urges people to consider the consequences that could be far more costly than those rate hikes.

The sanitation district, with or without the rate hikes, is still expected to comply with set limits for chloride in the river.

Strawberry and avocado farmers in Ventura are deemed “beneficial users” under the Clean Water Act of 1972 and guaranteed under the act to have uncontaminated water.

If it doesn’t comply, the district — and ultimately the ratepayers — could be hit with fines that range from $3,000 to $10,000 for each day of non-compliance, or $10 per gallon of water that does not meet the standard.

Worst case scenario for Santa Clarita ratepayers who toss out the latest rate hikes: The sanitation district is fined every day for non-compliance.

Flushing the proposed rate hikes down the drain could cost Santa Clarita ratepayers $3.65 million a year.

As Kilgore points out in his circular, just above the Protest Form’s dotted line: “Failure to adequately fund the necessary facilities could result in the district (and ultimately, you the ratepayer) being subject to significant fines and penalties and potentially a much more expensive project than what is currently recommended.”

Stacking the deck
The other way to win the water war over strawberry-sensitive chloride levels in the Santa Clara River is by getting a Regional Board sympathetic to Santa Clarita Valley sensibilities and willing to re-set the standard.

Even if Santa Clarita tells Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (who recommends people to the Regional Board) that the city has five out of nine Regional Board candidates it wants to endorse, and convinces him to pick those people, the fight is far from over.

The state Senate then has to approve the governor’s appointees.

Best-case scenario for those opposed to the rate hike: The governor and Senate appoint a board stacked with people named by Santa Clarita Valley ratepayers.

That board then says the chloride limit of 117 mg/L is far too low and, instead, resets the limit at 250 mg/L.

No need for a reverse-osmosis plant, no need to spend money, no need for rate hikes. That move, too, is not without precedent.

“We took action before to change the levels in some parts of the Valencia area from 117 to 130,” Unger points out, “Changing it again will be difficult.”

If the Regional Board resets the chloride level, the new level then has be approved by the state board and by the Office of Administrative Law and by the EPA.

Not impossible, just difficult, Unger says.

Compromise
The day strawberry farmers left their fields and drove east along Highway 126 they arrived here, pens in hand, ready to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with water officials in the Santa Clarita Valley.

As both upstream and downstream users sat down at the table in a room at the Rio Vista Treatment Plant overlooking Central Park, a hero of sorts emerged at the discussion, armed with a plan.

His name is Lynn Takaichi, chairman of Kennedy-Jenks Consulting, and he proposed a plan to extract higher concentrations of salt from the ground water near the Ventura County line and then blend it with clean water, all monitored for compliance in a staggered process.

“That whole process was the linchpin to the deal,” Kilgore said about the memo of understanding.

Takaichi’s plan significantly reduced the cost of the salt-ridding reverse-osmosis plant originally eyed by the sanitation district, he said.

“That plan is what brought our cost down,” Kilgore said. “Otherwise, we would have to have built a full-scale reverse osmosis plant.”

The plan effectively cut the cost of reverse osmosis in half.

A full-scale plant, with a cost estimate of $500 million and $600 million, was reduced by $220 million due to Takaichi’s proposal, then reduced further by $70 million due to Measure S and the removal of salt-based water softeners in local homes.

Dan Masnada, general manager of the Castaic Lake Water Agency, which hosted the meeting of water interests, called Takaichi’s plan “a stroke of genius.”

Troubled waters
Whether or not Santa Clarita Valley ratepayers decide to endorse the sewer rate hikes, and whether they try to change the face of the deciding Regional Board, they’re going to end up paying more than just $296 a year four years from now.

The proposed rate hikes are to cover just the preliminary costs of the reverse-osmosis plant, Kilgore said.

The rate-hike money is to pay for an environmental report, consultants and facility planning — among other things — before a single shovel goes into the ground to build the salt-removing plant.

“At the end of the four-year period, there will be additional rate increases up to 2022,” he said. “We want an informed public to know that.

“We are an agency that serves the people,” he said. “We are the people. We’re looking for the lowest possible cost.”
To put it in perspective, other communities pay far higher rates.

People in Santa Clarita pay sewage rates of $16.58 a month. According to numbers released by the sanitation district at a public hearing last month, monthly rates elsewhere include: Ventura, $25; Lancaster, $25.83; Palmdale, $27.16; Glendale, $33.70; Los Angeles, $35.24; Ojai, $52.07; Santa Paula, $59.39; Fillmore, $80.

An official with an industry association of salt-producing water-softener manufacturers said Santa Clarita’s bold move to ban salt-discharging softeners was historic, but it was insufficient to stave off rate hikes due to inevitable water treatment plants.

“We don’t like to say we told you so, but we knew what would happen. We had all the facts,” said David Loveday, spokesman for Pacific Water Quality Association.

“As far as I know, Santa Clarita is the only place in America to have voted to get rid of salt-based water softeners,” said association President Michael Mecca. “Some of our associates didn’t survive.”

Mecca said water softener manufacturers were being blamed for the chloride content in Santa Clara River water because they were the “low-hanging fruit” people saw on a daily basis.

In reality, many different sources contribute to the chloride in the river.

Public meetings
Now locals will get another opportunity to weigh in again on the issue of chloride with a series of information meetings planned by the sanitation board over the next month.

As well, the Regional Board is holding a public meeting on the chloride issue next month.

That meeting is scheduled to be held in Ventura for anyone wishing to make the drive west through miles of orange groves and lemon groves to a building near hundreds of acres of chloride-sensitive strawberries and avocados.

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