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High cost of compliance

Environment: Local officials and water enforcers regulate flow of water down to the last drop

Posted: August 17, 2010 8:01 p.m.
Updated: August 18, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Bert J. Rapp, Fillmore’s Public Works Department director, displays mason jars containing daily discharge of chloride from several different household sources.

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FILLMORE – Never has the Santa Clara River been filtered so vigorously, so urgently and at such great cost to tiny towns as it has in the last two years.

At least three brand-new, state-of-the-art water treatment plants, recycling plants and one pump house have been built or are in the planning stage along the river between the Santa Clarita Valley and the Pacific Ocean.

High energy-efficient plants in Santa Paula, Fillmore and Piru all started purifying water along the Santa Clara River within the last couple of months.

What motivated each tiny town to spend millions of dollars on infrastructure when each community, like the rest of America, struggles to rebound from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression?

Aside from Piru, each town was hit with a fine — many in the hundreds of thousands of dollars — by the California Water Resources Control Board.

Since the board’s Office of Enforcement was created in June 2006, each of those towns along the Santa Clara River has been hit with hefty fines for water quality violations.

So with a lineup of ultra-efficient water treatment plants positioned from Fillmore to the ocean, does the Santa Clarita Valley need to build a $210 million salt-ridding reverse-osmosis plant to satisfy Ventura County farmers downstream?

The Signal took a road trip to find out.

Ventura County Line
Leaving Santa Clarita Valley heading west on Highway 126, we leave behind us two drinking-water treatment plants operated by the Castaic Lake Water Agency and two wastewater treatment plants run by the Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District, all serving residents of the Santa Clarita Valley.

Valley residents wastewater is treated at one of the two SCV plants and then dumped into the Santa Clara River.

Downstream farmers say their crops can tolerate no more than 117 millimeters of chloride, a naturally occurring salt. Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board members say the SCV must scrub the chloride out of the river by 2015 — or face hefty fines.

Plans call for a $210 million reverse-osmosis plant — to be underwritten by Santa Clarita Valley homeowners — to remove chloride from the water.

Many local residents question the science behind the chloride conclusion and say the fees imposed to build the plant would tax local residents but destroy the local economy.

As we cross from Los Angeles County to Ventura County — the point at which the chloride level must drop — no water is visible in the river bed, but a rich green carpet of riverside trees and brush shows us where it is.

The first water treatment plant of note is just a stake in the dusty ground for now, on the south side of the highway just before the Ventura County line.

This is the site for a water reclamation plant planned by Newhall Land and Farming to serve the 21,000 residents of its Newhall Ranch development.

Once it’s up and running, the plant will treat an estimated 6.8 million gallons of water every day.

Piru saw no fine
About six miles further down the winding road, still along the river and on the north side of the highway this time, is the brand-new $14.5 million wastewater treatment plant in Piru.

It started treating water in February with a capacity of up to 0.5 million gallons of water a day, replacing a plant built in 1974.

Piru has a population of about 1,200 with an average household income $41,000.

Unlike its river neighbors upstream and down, it was not cited for a single water violation.

Instead of getting a fine, it got an “order” to build a plant and help to build it.

The board issued Piru a Time Schedule Order ordering the construction and start-up of a new wastewater treatment plant be completed by February 28, 2010.

Piru built the plant.
With funding from the Ventura County Public Works Agency and that county’s sanitation department — plus $8.55 million in Economic Stimulus Bill money and a $6 million state loan from the Clean Water State Revolving fund — it now joins Fillmore and Santa Paula in putting cleaner water into the Santa Clara River.

Driving out of Piru through a corridor of orange groves, we travel from a region of no violations to a town fined for 2,800 violations.

Stopping to talk to Fillmore’s top water man, we learn the town is no longer just treading water to stay fine-free.

Fillmore’s canary pond
Goldfish swim to the surface as Bert J. Rapp kneels down beside their pond.

The director of Fillmore’s Department of Public Works is taking a short break from questions about water fines, about the town’s “Cadillac” of new water treatment plants and about a water penalty of almost a quarter of a million dollars.

“This is our canary pond,” he says, teasing the goldfish with his fingers.

He looks up and smiles at his interviewer, proud to explain.

“Just as they used canaries in coal mines to test the air quality, we have these fish here in our treated water to test the quality of it.”

The goldfish are as big as sausages.

“The koi are the larger ones,” he says, pointing to fish the size of oven mitts.

Both types of fish appear healthy — and aside from the teasing, apparently quite happy — swimming and splashing in water cleaned with state-of-the art technology.

“If we were given an order to remove chloride from our water, we wanted to have the right technology in place,” Rapp said, standing up from the pond and looking over his shoulder at the new water-purifying plant.

The water leaving here travels downstream to more Ventura County farms.

Fillmore’s filter
In 2000, strawberries replaced lemons as the No. 1 cash crop in Ventura County.

Five years ago, strawberries’ value as the new top crop totaled $328.6 million.

And strawberries are particularly susceptible to chloride in the water, farmers say.

Between Oct. 28, 2004, and June 30, 2008, chloride levels in water discharged into the Santa Clara River at Fillmore exceeded interim chloride limits granted by the board of 187 milligrams per liter.

The resulting fines were for a variety of chemicals released in effluent, and chloride was one of them.

“If we hadn’t had that limit for the interim — and they did the analysis — we would have had a lot more chloride violations,” Rapp said.

As it turned out, the violations that were cited by the board netted Fillmore a fine of $231,000.

“The regional board has allowed us payment over three years,” Rapp said.

Fillmore built the $69 million water recycling plant last year as part of a an order imposed by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board.

The decision to build came in response to revised, more stringent limitations on wastewater discharge set by the regional board.

If it had failed to comply with any provisions of the order, Fillmore would have likely been hit with fines of at least $3,000 a day for each day of non-compliance.

City officials decided it was better to pay to build the plant — with an estimated annual operating cost of $1.75 million, according to the town’s 2008-2009 audit — than to pay an escalating fine.

The cost is borne by Fillmore residents.

Financing the Fillmore plant
The city issued $57.4 million in revenue bonds to help finance the capital improvement costs, its audit reveals.

Paying off the debt is expected to occur through user fee increases and through new development fees over the life the 40-year bond issue.

On July 1, 2009, city leaders hiked the residential rate sewage user rate from $72 to $80. Now, they want to increase it again to $82.

On Sept. 15, Fillmore ratepayers will get a chance to rally against proposed rate hikes, just as their neighbors in Santa Clarita did last month.

At least 34,000 signatures were needed to kill the proposed rate hikes representing at least half of all Santa Clarita Valley homeowners with sewer hookups.

That magic number in Fillmore is reached with 2,000 signatures.

As it turned out, the Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District board voted to delay consideration of the rate hike until spring.

The required 34,000 protest signatures were not collected.

Fillmore sees the fight in simple terms.

“The choice you have is you either pay it or override the state’s ruling,” Rapp said.

“If Santa Clarita sends more salt down the river, it raises our chloride levels and could put us out of compliance. Fillmore ratepayers would, again, be hit.

“So everybody needs to do their part.”
Continuing our cruise downstream along the Santa Clara River, The Signal found still more towns doing their part.

Santa Paula
In 2007, within a year of the state water board’s Office of Enforcement creation, Santa Paula faced a water board fine of $8 million.

The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board — the same one that rules on Santa Clarita Valley issues — fined Santa Paula after it found the town’s water treatment plant was discharging polluted water.

Between Jan. 1, 2000, and March 31, 2007, Santa Paula racked up more than 2,800 violations.

With a population of about 28,000 and a median household income of $41,000, the looming fines threatened to be disastrous.

An agreement was reached in May 2007 reducing Santa Paula’s fines as long as the town built a new water-recycling plant.

Santa Paula still has to shell out $350,000 to pay the reduced fine.

However, it didn’t have to pay a single penny for any of the new plant’s up-front capital costs.

In May 2008, a company called Santa Paula Water LLC received a state contract to build the town’s new plant.

In May 2010 the plant began treating water seven months ahead of schedule.

It became the first treatment plant to be built under California’s Government Code 5956 promoting private investment directed at improving the infrastructure of aging towns and cities.

The city’s original plant blamed for releasing polluted water had been built in 1939.

Gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman was there for the official opening of the new plant last May.

Leaving Santa Paula, we find the mouth of the Santa Clara River.

Not seen from the river or the highway that follows it are tiny but important tributaries, none of them overlooked by the water board’s Office of Enforcement.

Ojai Changes
Tucked among valleys north of Santa Paula is the sleepy still-hippy-ish enclave of Ojai. The town is still using its original treatment plant but looking to change.

The Ojai Valley Sanitation District notified its ratepayers last month that a new $4.5 million pumping station is “essential to protect the environment by reducing the risk of preventable sewage spills in future years.”

Such spills became an urgent concern for Ojai planners in 2008 when the regional water board fined the town $24,000 for eight “effluent violations.”

The new pump house and the three new water treatment plants in Santa Paula, Fillmore and Piru bring to seven the total number of water-enhancing plants along the Santa Clara River from the Santa Clarita Valley to Santa Paula.

That’s more than half a dozen new plants hedging against fines and penalties, working to ensure clean water makes its way downstream.

Rooted in the past
Fillmore — founded in 1888, population just under 14,000, median household income is $45,500 — is a farm town fastened to the past.

The sightseeing train that runs outside Rapp’s office at City Hall employs the same rustic track used by Southern Pacific Railroad to expanded Southern California.

When it wasn’t carrying people, the early Southern Pacific line through Fillmore carried oranges.

The town’s farming heritage can be seen everywhere.

Every day that Rapp comes to work, and every day that his City Hall co-workers do the same, and every day that town folk arrive for public meetings — worried about paying a $231,000 fine handed to them by the state water board’s Office of Enforcement — all have to walk across a municipal lobby floor tiled with a mosaic of its most valuable historic commodity — two oranges on a branch.

Even if you appreciate that Fillmore is now a town like any other coping with 21st century demands, you can’t deny that growing oranges remains an economic staple as old as the railway itself.

However, through tribulations brought on by the state water board and its enforcers, the town is transformed with a progressive eye on its future.

At least when it comes to water.

Hard on softeners
Back at his office, Rapp lines up half a dozen mason jars on his desk.

Each has a label: cleaning products, laundry, water supply, human waste, pool filter backwater, brine-discharging water softeners.

All the jars but one have just a sprinkling of white crystals.

But in that one jar, crystals are measured in pounds — not in ounces, like the others.

That one jar is labeled brine-discharging softeners, and it contains 1.2 pounds of chloride.

“This is what water softeners produce in a day,” Rapp said, beaming. “This is chloride.”

Chloride is one of two naturally occurring components of table salt, the other being sodium.

Farmers in Ventura County say excessive amounts of chloride harm their salt-sensitive strawberry and avocado crops.

Some Santa Clarita Valley challengers say the scientific evidence to prove their claim is lacking.

Still, the nine members of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, an arm of the state water board, say the critical threshold of chloride in Santa Clara River water is 117 milligrams per liter — no more.

And, even though the monument tiled into the lobby floor of Fillmore’s City Hall shows oranges, not strawberries or avocados, Fillmore — like Santa Clarita and other Santa Clara River communities upstream from Ventura County farmers — are expected to make the river water virtually salt free.

What’s left for Fillmore to do to rid the river of chloride?

“We have get rid of our water softeners,” Rapp said, eyeing the lineup of jars. “If we can get people to get rid of their brine-based water softeners, then Fillmore will be in compliance during drought conditions.

“That’s why our main push is to get rid of the softeners,” he said.

The city has a program to buy back these brine units, and the passage of Assembly Bill 2270 would make it unlawful to operate a brine-discharging water softener.

Fillmore is following in the footsteps of the Santa Clarita Valley, which through rebates and a bill outlawing salt-based water softeners shaved $70 million off the anticipated cost of removing chloride here, according to sanitation officials.

Reverse-osmosis plant
A $210 million salt-ridding reverse-osmosis plant as planned by the Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District — together with the water-reclamation plant on the Ventura County line planned for Newhall Ranch — would bring to nine the number of shiny new plants enhancing, cleaning and purifying water along the Santa Clara River.

That means a new water treatment plant — on average, every four miles along the Santa Clara River from here to Santa Paula.

That’s where city officials just added an avocado to the city’s official seal.

 

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