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‘Fair and firm’ cash grab

State water agency has fined ratepayers vast sums of money — Santa Clarita may be next on the list

Posted: August 14, 2010 8:18 p.m.
Updated: August 15, 2010 4:30 a.m.
 

You might call them the water police.

Their beat runs from storm water runoff to overt dumping and extends throughout California.

Their staff of 12 is evenly split between scientists and Special Investigations team members, their cases made and culprits exposed through lab work.

While they carry no firearms, the sting of their punishment — including millions of dollars in fines — has proven so punitive and persistent that it’s prompted some cities to band together under the League of California Cities and draft a state bill to try to soften their impact.

And we in the Santa Clarita Valley may be next.

The agency is called the Office of Enforcement, and it reports directly to the California Water Resources Control Board, diligently reaching back over the past decade to enforce cold-case violations of state and federal clean water laws.

Thanks to its Office of Enforcement, the state water board last year collected $13.65 million in water-quality fines and penalties — more money from fines than during any year prior, and almost double the board’s highest tally on record.

The maximum collected before last year’s precedent-setting total was $7.37 million — in the 2006-2007 fiscal year, the year the Office of Enforcement took effect.

Residents of Fillmore were hit with $243,000 in fines; the tiny farm town of Dixon paid $223,000; even tinier San Juan Batista is poised to shell out at least $25 for each man, woman and child in town — just the latest round of fines suffered by the Salinas Valley hamlet.

Are we next?
The Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District is facing possible fines of at least $3,000 a day. That tab would likely be picked up by homeowners and businesses in the form of rate increases.

Hook-up fees for new businesses could skyrocket to as much as $300,000, a devastating blow to the local economy.

Despite repeated phone calls and e-mails last week to its director, Reed Sato, and lead attorney David M. Boyers, neither would talk directly to The Signal about fines or the Office of Enforcement.

Need for money
It was June 2006. California housing prices began their steep decline, and as news began trickling in about the prospect of devastating financial implications of the sub-prime mortgage crisis, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger created an agency within the state Water Resources Control Board that would bring in more money.

With the state facing a $6.4 billion operating deficit that year, the governor predicted in his proposed 2006-2007 budget that “revenues will be $929 million more than the LAO (Legislative Analyst’s Office) forecast.”

The Office of Enforcement was set up to issue fines and enforce outstanding violations of the state and federal clean water laws — the 1972 Clean Water Act and the state’s 1969 Porter-Cologne Act.

The monies collected from fines and penalties are deposited in a fund dedicated to improving the environment.

Although top officials for the Office of Enforcement would not talk to The Signal, a Signal investigation into their records indicate the enforcers shifted the water boards’ focus. Previously, the focus had been encouraging compliance through dialogue and compromise.

After the enforcers received their mandate, the focus became “fair and firm enforcement of compliance,” which translated into  revenue-generating — and punitive — fines.

Enforcers scrutinized a backlog of hundreds of water-quality violations over an entire decade.

They found 7,880 violations — between Jan, 1, 2000, and Dec. 31, 2007 — had not received a penalty at or above the mandatory minimum amount, according to the 2007 Water Board’s Enforcement Report. These violations provided opportunities for “direct action” as spelled out in the water board’s mandate.

In its 2008 report, the water board stated: “After discussing the ways to efficiently address these outstanding violations, the water boards started the statewide initiative for MMP enforcement.”

MMP means mandatory minimum penalties, which were deemed absolutely enforceable by Senate Bill 709, a 2003 state law.

The agencies charged with monitoring water quality, limiting pollution and enforcing water-quality standards are the nine state Regional Water Quality Control boards, each of which has nine members appointed by the governor.

The governor also appoints the state water board members.

Looming fines
The prospect of being fined by the state water board through its regional office in Los Angeles remains worrisome for local city and sanitation officials struggling to clean up the water discharged into the Santa Clara River.

In order to ensure salty chloride levels do not exceed 117 milligrams per liter — a threshold Ventura County farmers growing salt-sensitive crops such as strawberries and avocados downstream expect the regional board to uphold — the Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District plans to build a $210-million salt-ridding reverse-osmosis plant.

To build it, the district has to raise money. It proposed raising Santa Clarita Valley homeowners’ and businesses’ sewer rates over four years.

At a public meeting held last month to address proposed rate hikes, chloride levels, river water quality, strawberries and money, attendees sent a clear message to Sanitation District board members:

We will fight the rate increases and challenge the water board.

The discussion of rate hikes was put off until spring.

Will the state water board’s new water-policing Office of Enforcement fine Santa Clarita Valley homeowners over excessive chloride levels in the Santa Clara River?

You can ask city officials in Fillmore, population 15,000, who were fined $231,000 — the year after they built a state-of-the-art water-treatment plant.

You can also ask the homeowners of Dixon, which is near Sacramento and has a population of 14,000 — a farming
town with neither river nor lake — who were fined $250,000 over chloride levels.

The Signal went to each of these towns looking for answers, insight and advice about fighting the fines, about paying them and about working to provide clean, uncontaminated water for the farmers who surround both communities.

Small town, big fine
The short answer, however, could probably be found in the tiny farm town of San Juan Batista, near Salinas.

This year, the 1,549 town folk who live in San Juan Batista can expect a $39,000 fine from the Office of Enforcement,

The Signal has learned from a member of the Central Coast Regional Water Board.

The penalty, not yet formally announced and still being drafted, averages to at least $25 for every man, woman and child in the town.

Including the pending fine, the cumulative average fine amount for every man, woman and child in San Juan Batista works out to at least $57 for all fines since 2002.

Their crime?

They were cited for eight chloride violations, having discharged the salt into a San Benito River tributary, so small it doesn’t have a name, which is upstream from the Salinas River and the watershed for Salinas, commonly called the Salad Bowl of America.

Should we consider the lesson learned at San Juan Batista as a barometer by which to gauge the likelihood of a fine leveled here? Consider this:

San Juan Batista was also fined $12,000 last year, again for chloride excesses. It was also fined $18,000 in 2003 and another $20,000 the year before that, all for making the Salinas River too salty for “beneficial uses” downstream such as farming.

The Clean Water Act guarantees natural, uncontaminated water for downstream beneficial uses.

Cecile DeMartini, one of nine members on the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, was asked if she and her fellow board members reflected on how such big fines would affect such a small community.

She replied: “It is what it is. We just follow the law.”

Chloride equals fines
The city of Paso Robles was also fined for having contaminated the Salinas River with chloride, netting four chloride violations.

Other chloride violators hit with fines last year include:
— The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for eight chloride violations at the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo, for having discharged excessive amounts of chloride into Chorro Creek.

— The Antioch Pulp and Paper Mill owned by the Gaylord Container Corp. for having twice discharged unlawful amounts of chloride into the San Joaquin River.

League of Cities
Officials in some cities hit with hefty water fines appealed to the League of California Cities for help.

“A lot of the cities hit don’t have the money, and have to pay out of their general fund,” said a source close to the fines issue at a state level who did not want to be identified.

“A lot of folks feel it’s like kicking someone when they’re down,” the source said, referring to an economy struggling to rebound.

Next month, a state bill articulating the resentment expressed by cities over high fines is expected to hit the state Legislature’s floor.

Officials with the League of California Cities helped draft Senate Bill 1284 in response to city representatives’ concerns over fines issued for water quality paperwork that isn’t filed to the board on time.

SB 1284 would not take on the fines for pollution being levied by the Office of the Enforcement. It would tackle fines for filing late paperwork.

“We have a number of cities that have not discharged excessive amounts of anything but have failed to file their paperwork,” said League spokeswoman Kyra Ross.

“And, these fines are enormous — from $200,000 to $600,000 — issued to very little cities, very little towns with very little water plants.

“This bill attempts to correct that in a way that caps these fines at $3,000 for each discharge violation.”

Ross said league officials have fielded complaints from various city leaders about punitive fines leveled by the Office of Enforcement specifically for excessive chloride discharge, which SB 1284 would not address.

First things first, she said.

In Monday’s paper, Santa Clarita Valley weighs options and consequences of being fined.

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