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Delayed, but not defused

Farmers say they’ll consider litigation as Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District plans to borrow

Posted: July 28, 2010 8:35 p.m.
Updated: July 29, 2010 4:30 a.m.
 

Santa Clarita Valley sewer ratepayers will wind up spending more in the long run, despite a decision Tuesday night to delay rate-hike discussion until spring.

Meanwhile, Ventura County farmers — noting SCV residents’ resistance to pay more money to reduce crop-damaging chloride levels in the Santa Clara River — are weighing their options, including possible litigation.

Ventura farmers bore the brunt of criticism during Tuesday’s meeting of the Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District board, which postponed rate-increase talk until spring.

Among the more than 150 who arrived at City Hall on Tuesday to protest the proposed hikes was a representative of the Ventura County Farm Coalition, which represents more than two dozen farm interests.

“There was somebody there,” said John Krist, spokesman for the Ventura County Farm Bureau. “Just to tell the folks in Ventura what the mood was.”

Asked Wednesday if the farm coalition was considering legal action, which was suggested by several sources contacted by The Signal, Krist said: “We are aware of the decision reached by the (Sanitation District) board, and we are discussing among ourselves what the appropriate response would be.

“The ball is in the court of the (Los Angeles Regional) Water Quality Control Board in respecting the (total daily maximum load) for chloride levels.

“If the folks in Santa Clarita Valley violate that, then it becomes an enforcement issue rather than a litigation issue.
“Litigation is a last resort,” he said.

Mary Ann Lutz, chair of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, referred all comments to Samuel Unger, the board’s interim executive officer, who could not be reached for comment.  The Regional Water Quality Control Board is the agency charged with upholding the federal Clean Water Act.

Borrowing from existing fund
The Sanitation District is expected to borrow money from a fund fattened with new sewer-hookup fees in light of the Tuesday night decision.

Local property owners who have sewer hookups will pay no new rate increases to the Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District for at least a year.

But ultimately, ratepayers will pay the bill.

“The board does allow us to borrow from our capital improvement fund, which new connection fees pay into,” said John Gulledge, the district’s department head in charge of financial planning.

“We then repay that money back into the fund, plus interest,” he said. “So, next time around, the rates will have to go up even more.”

Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, who sits on the district board, objected to voting on the proposed rate increases Tuesday night, saying more public discussion is needed.

The ongoing water war over chloride content in the Santa Clara River, meanwhile, is expected to see many more battles between now and next spring when district board members will revisit the rate-hike debate.

Reverse-osmosis
Steve Maguin, the Sanitation District’s assistant chief engineer and assistant general manager, arrived at City Hall on Tuesday hoping to leave with the green light to gradually raise sewer rates over the next four years — from this year’s annual rate of $199 to $296 by the 2013-14 fiscal year.

The money would have gone, in part, to preliminary costs for a $210 million salt-removing reverse-osmosis plant.

At the very least, Maguin hoped to get approval to raise rates by $1.92 a month — an annual increase of $23 — just to cover normal day-to-day operational costs.

Instead, he went home empty-handed.

“We’re just going to have to borrow money, again,” he told the more than 150 people who turned out to protest his proposed rate hikes.

The issue at the core of the whole rate-hike debate, which prompted 7,732 ratepayers to sign protest forms, is the issue of salt ending up in the Santa Clara River and what it would cost to reduce that amount of salt.

More specifically, it’s the issue of chloride — one of two naturally occurring components of table salt — discharged into the river by the district.

Strawberry standards
Ventura County farmers of salt-sensitive strawberries and avocados are relying on the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board to uphold the Clean Water Act of 1972 as the board’s mandate requires.

The federal act guarantees “beneficial users,” such as the strawberry farmers, river water almost as pure as rainwater with no contaminants.

The board has agreed that no more than 117 milligrams of chloride per liter of water may end up in Santa Clarita’s sewer discharge.

The regional board could fine the local Sanitation District $20,000 a day — $10,000 a day for each of the district’s two water treatment plants — for noncompliance.

Other reports indicate the fines could be much higher, nearly $200,000 a day.

To avoid future fines, Maguin hoped to use the proposed rate hikes to help pay for the startup costs of a $210 million reverse-osmosis plant.

Santa Clarita Mayor Laurene Weste, who also sits on the district board, called the chloride issue “the worst issue you’ll ever have to deal with in Santa Clarita.”

The solution, she says, lies in constructing a peripheral canal.

“There is no other answer,” she said.

Peripheral canal
TThe peripheral canal would divert water from the Sacramento River, around the San Joaquin Delta, ultimately delivering water to Santa Clarita that has a lower chloride content.

Currently, half the water supplied to Santa Clarita via the Castaic Lake Water Agency and the State Water Project contains on average about 80 milligrams of chloride per liter.

Agency General Manager Dan Masnada said the canal would enhance water quality, but also would prove costly.

“I think it will happen; the question is when,” Masnada said in an e-mail to The Signal.

“Best guess is that it would not be up and running until after 2020, but a lot needs to happen between now and then.

“Would it help us here in SCV with our chloride levels? Yes, it would,” Masnada said.

Last year, the Strategic Economic Applications Company prepared a report for California state legislators that concluded the construction of a peripheral canal would cost between $23 billion and $53.8 billion to build.

 

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