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Coastal domination

Environment: Ventura County strawberry farmers can count on two friends on the water board

Posted: August 2, 2010 10:43 p.m.
Updated: August 3, 2010 4:55 a.m.

The board that decides the issue of chloride in the Santa Clara River includes two advocates of Ventura County strawberry farmers.

Jeanette Lombardo, who represents water-quality interests on Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, also sits on the Chamber of Commerce in Oxnard, where the bulk of Ventura County strawberry farms exist.

As well, Steve Blois, based in the neighboring community of Camarillo, oversees industrial-water use on the same regional water board.

Blois, owner of a consulting firm, built his business reputation on developing water infrastructure between the Santa Clarita Valley and the ocean.

When asked about Santa Clarita Valley being expected to meet low standards of chloride in the Santa Clara River, Blois said: “I fully expect the 117 milligram-per-liter standard to be fulfilled.”

Asked if his voice and that of Lombardo might make it difficult for concerns from the SCV to be heard, he said: “I think Santa Clarita holds its own. Their voice is extremely well heard.”

That said, none of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board’s members are from Santa Clarita.

“We are charged with maintaining good water quality,” Blois said Monday of the board. “And that comes at a cost, and it’s our job to be as reasonable as possible in these tough economic times.”

The board has nine seats, but currently three are empty. Two others become vacant in November.

He and Lombardo are not among those due to be replaced in November.

Besides Lombardo and Blois, members are from Malibu, Pacific Palisades, La Canada Flintridge and Monrovia. They represent Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

Ventura interests

Lombardo, a 45-year-old Republican and former Union Bank loan officer in Ventura, was appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in November 2009.

In 2006, she moved to Ventura County from Kings County, where she worked on water issues, including those on naturally occurring arsenic and dairy farmers’ water use.

She could not be reached for comment Monday.

Her appointment was monitored closely by a coalition of Ventura business interests called the Chambers of Commerce Alliance of Ventura & Santa Barbara.

The alliance represents scores of Ventura and Santa Barbara business interests, including many agricultural interests, through eight chambers of commerce, an alliance spokesman said.

Alliance Executive Director Brendan Huffman said he fired off a letter of support to the governor advocating Lombardo’s appointment to the regional water board.

“I did submit a letter for Jeanette Lombardo to the governor,” he told The Signal on Monday. “Many in the Ventura business community are very pleased with Miss Lombardo and pleased to have her voice on the (regional water) board.”

There are nine water quality control boards in the state, each with nine members appointed by the governor to represent specific fields of interest.

Lombardo is one of two board members specializing in water quality.

The topic of Santa Clara River water quality has become a hotly contested subject in the last couple of months as salty chloride levels continue to spur public debate over proposed sewer rate hikes needed to pay for a costly salt-ridding plant.

The river runs through the Santa Clarita Valley, where treated wastewater is added before it flows into Ventura County, where it’s used to irrigate crops.

Among the crops are chloride-sensitive strawberries and avocados. Farmers expect to receive salt-free river water according to standards set by the 1972 Clean Water Act and enforced by the Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Current plans call for the Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District to build a $210 million reverse-osmosis plant by 2015 in order to comply with the act and avoid being hit with fines.

The regional water board has the power to issue fines for noncompliance of at least $20,000 a day to $10,000 a day for each of the district’s two sewer treatment plants.

Last week, the Sanitation District board voted to delay rate hikes aimed at beginning the process of building the plant.

Coastal domination
This November, the profile of the regional board could change, with five of the nine seats to be decided.

So what are the chances of the profile changing?

“The likelihood is not,” Blois said.

Taking in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, covering the coast from Carpinteria to Seal Beach, the board historically is dominated by coastal representation, despite its vast inland area, said Mary Anne Lutz, board chairwoman.

She, in Monrovia, and fellow board member Maria Mehranian, of La Cañada Flintridge, whose expertise is county government, are the only current members not from coastal communities.

“Before she and I, they were all west-side members,” she said of previous boards.

The two seats that become available in the fall are those held by coastal members Madelyn Glickfield, of Malibu, whose area is recreation, fish and wildlife, and by Francine Diamond of Pacific Palisades, representing the public at large.

Lutz was asked what it takes to get on the regional board.

“You need to have letters of support,” Lutz said, “from a variety of areas such as the environment, business and the cities.

“You definitely need to have a connection to some of these entities.”

And, while Ventura representatives remain well-versed on the chloride issue, Lutz admits she has to do more research.

“My biggest concern (is) I don’t want them to be fined,” she said of Santa Clarita Valley residents.

Selection process
Regional Water Quality Control Board members are not paid to wield their power. They receive a compensatory $100 per diem.

Those wishing to become a board member can easily put their names in the hat.

“Anyone can submit an application online to be considered,” said Matt Connelly, spokesman for the governor’s office.

Asked if the governor personally reads all the applications filed online across the state, or has a committee to narrow the field, Connelly said: “We do have an appointments secretary.”

From there, the applications are whittled down to a short list of qualified contenders.

Since the positions carry immense power in deciding the fate of communities and the issuing of fines in the tens of thousands, Connelly was asked: “Is it more accurate to say lobbying does go on with respect to some applicants, or is it more accurate to say that lobbying does not go on with respect to applicants?”

He replied: “I would say the person most qualified gets the job.”

Water aside, Lombardo has demonstrated leadership on a number of financial fronts — as collection manager for First Federal Bank in the late ’90s to 1999 and internal auditor for the Palace Indian Gaming Casino six years ago.

She has a lengthy resume demonstrating she is extremely qualified to watch over water quality on the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Within days of her appointment and before the state Senate confirmed her, the alliance of Ventura chambers of commerce announced online: “The Chamber Alliance has voiced its support for local businesswoman Jeanette Lombardo’s appointment to the L.A. Regional Water Quality Control Board, which regulates water quality issues for Ventura County. Ms. Lombardo is active with several local business groups including the Oxnard Chamber’s water committee.”

Not only does Lombardo’s expertise extend to water issues in Ventura County, as a member of the Association of Water Agencies of Ventura County, she also takes a commanding lead at the helm of farm issues arising in Oxnard, where strawberries flourish.

By serving on both the  water committee for the Oxnard Chamber of Commerce and on the land-use committee for Ventura County Agricultural Futures Alliance, she addresses strawberry farmers, the business of strawberries and the water that helps both grow.

And, with Blois on the same board, she is not the lone voice for Ventura.

Schwarzenegger appointed Blois to the regional water board in 2008.

When he was president of Blois Construction Inc. in Oxnard, Blois managed $150 million in pipeline construction work, primarily in Ventura County, specializing in water and sewage treatment facilities and pumping stations.

In fact, many of Santa Clarita’s sewer pipelines were installed by Blois and his company.

“I did a lot of work in Santa Clarita over the years,” he said.

Blois is now president of Vista Valley Consulting Inc.


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