View Mobile Site
 

Ask the Expert

Signal Photos

 

No silver bullet for salt

Environment: Bottom line leaves agencies, farmers and ratepayers with costly management options

Posted: August 21, 2010 8:24 p.m.
Updated: August 22, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Signs like the one shown above, which are posted alongside Interstate 5 from Bakersfield to Dixon, display the politically charged nature of water issues and farming the Central Valley. A peripheral canal and reverse-osmosis plants are just two of several costly solutions under consideration.

 

 After talking to farmers, water officials, engineers, scientists and city officials from the San Joaquin Delta to the Pacific Ocean, a monthlong investigation by The Signal into chloride in the Santa Clara River and those who enforce a clean water balance comes down to one simple observation: We’re adding too much salt to our state.

Failing systems

Jeannette Lombardo grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania.

Although she’s not a farmer now, she may be the closest friend a Ventura County strawberry farmer could have.

The 45-year-old no-nonsense former collection manager sits on the Chamber of Commerce in Oxnard, where the Santa Clara River watershed serves the bulk of strawberry farmers in Ventura County.

This month, she was named president of the California Women for Agriculture.

She also oversees water-quality interests on the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, which could fine Santa Clarita Valley homeowners if they fail to bring chloride levels below 117 milligrams per liter in the river water by 2015.

Farmers say that threshold is crucial for the salt-sensitive strawberries and avocados they grow downstream from where Santa Clarita Valley wastewater is dumped into the Santa Clara River.

The tab for reducing chloride levels ranges into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

While Lombardo’s background is firmly rooted in farming, her vision is all-encompassing and long-range — and it’s frightening.

 “Toxicity of salt in the watershed is a huge issue,” she said. “We have a huge population we have to feed in this state, and that’s why we have to deal with the salts.”

Lombardo says she’s in the process of implementing a “salt-management plan” for Ventura County farmers to help them deal more effectively with salt.

But the problem is bigger than farmers and their city-residing customers.

 “I feel what’s happening with the salt is a sign of bigger problems,” she said. “Our ecosystem is failing, our infrastructure is failing.”

Not enough water
In June 2006, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger augmented the California Water Resources Control Board by creating the Office of Enforcement, charged with reviewing all water-quality violations back to the year 2000.

Two years later to the day, the governor declared a statewide drought.

Californians saw a flurry of vigorously enforced fines. And very little water.

“The drought is huge, and it affects water conveyance to Southern California,” Lombardo says. “We can do all the conservation we want, but the bottom line is, there’s not enough water to keep up with the population.”

There’s a mantra she and other water officials now know by heart: “The solution to pollution is dilution.”

But during drought years, dilution isn’t much of an option.

Farming concentrates
Environmental engineer Joe DiGiorgio of Eco Logic Inc. has spent the last 15 years working on chloride concerns for the tiny farming town of Dixon, located in one of California’s rich farming areas between Oakland and Sacramento.

Without rainfall to flush chloride out of the soil, he found, the salt — and other pollutants — simply stay there.

When plants take in water and release it as vapor into the atmosphere, they contribute to the concentration of salts in the water that is left behind in the soil.

Without rainfall, “The groundwater starts getting very strong in salts,” DiGiorgio says of the process.

Recycled concerns
Some communities, including the Santa Clarita Valley, are looking to recycled water as a way to solve the water shortage.

But DiGiorgio notes that the same salt-concentrating process that results from plant evapotranspiration also occurs when recycling water.

“If you’re going to recycle water and if you don’t take out the salts when you use it again, you’re going to end up concentrating the salt in the water that’s left, just like any farmer would do.

“Everybody thinks recycling is the way,” DiGiorgio said. “But if you don’t pay attention to what it’s doing with the salts, it may come back to bite you.”

Five years ago, state water regulators told him they were concerned about the implications of large-scale water recycling, the environmental engineer said.

Plans to use more and more recycled water in the Santa Clarita Valley could prove costly, since the only currently accepted way to remove chloride effectively is through expensive reverse-osmosis technology.

By 2020, officials at the Castaic Lake Water Agency hope an estimated 22,744 acre-feet of water will be recycled in and around the Santa Clarita Valley, watering our parks, school yards, wilderness tracts and along our paseos.

Water agency General Manager Dan Masnada said there shouldn’t be a problem with chloride buildup in recycled water — except during periods  of prolonged drought.

“Groundwater extractions are sustainable over the long term,” he said in an e-mail message Thursday. “We are not extracting more water from the ground than Mother Nature is replenishing.  Along the same lines, while chlorides in groundwater during drought periods do increase, they eventually go back to more normal levels.

“The increase in chlorides that may result during droughts also subsides over time due to normal precipitation and the periodic, if not steady, flushing that results.”

If the drought ends today, so does the problem with salinity and chloride levels.

But California has a history of periodic droughts.

Solutions sought
A number of solutions to the chloride issue are being pursued on several fronts.

In the summer of 2008, a group was formed by citizens determined to put California on a salt-free diet.

The Central Valley Salinity Coalition was formed to effectively manage the salinity in California’s Central Valley, which includes the town of Dixon. Dixon was hit with a $220,000 fine for having discharged too much chloride into its groundwater.

The Salinity Coalition’s goal is the same as that of the Southern and Northern California Salinity coalitions — get the salt out of the water and out of the ground.

Executives from biotech companies are working with farmers, public works directors and others within the coalition to help state legislators update the Sacramento River Basin Plan, all in an effort to stop California sowing its own state with salt.

Lombardo suggested that desalination plants — mothballed in Santa Barbara three decades ago — should be revisited in light of technological advancements made since then.

The cost of building a desalination plant is estimated at $300 million.

In San Juan Bautista, water officials are looking at the effectiveness of lime pellets to reduce some toxicity caused by chloride.

In the Santa Clarita Valley, Phil Friess of the Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District told civic leaders recently that he could reduce chloride levels in water discharged into the Santa Clara River by 10 milligrams per liter using ultraviolet technology.

Regional solutions
Despite the often-harsh fines that have been handed out by the state water board’s Office of Enforcement, another arm of the state agency — the one that includes its regional water quality control boards — is seeking solutions, not punishment.

Similar to Lombard’s current push for the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board to hammer out a “salt-management plan” with farmers in Ventura County, her counterpart on the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board is drafting an order compelling farmers there to better manage salty fertilizers.

The State Water Resources Control Board has nine such regional boards, each with nine members. Members of both the statewide board and the regional boards are appointed by the governor.

Peripheral canal
Also being pulled out of the closet for discussion and consideration is renewed talk about the so-called peripheral canal.

Californians killed plans for the canal in 1982 by nixing it in a ballot initiative.

The peripheral canal would divert water from the Sacramento River around the San Joaquin Delta. It’s in the Delta where State Water Project water, traveling south, picks up many of its impurities, including chloride.

Fragile levies in the Delta threaten to collapse in an earthquake, potentially cutting off Southern California’s major water supply.

Both the cost of the canal — estimated by the Washington Group International in its 2006 report to run as high as $3.7 billion — make the peripheral canal, part of a Deltawide solution proposal, a difficult sell to voters.

State legislators recently pulled the proposal off the ballot for November, saying it has little chance of passing during the current recession.

But because other communities would contribute to the cost of building the peripheral canal, it remains the preferred option for Santa Clarita Mayor Laurene Weste.

“The peripheral canal is the only solution,” she said at a recent public meeting, echoing the same sentiments at the editorial board meeting.

High cost of plant
The current favored technology to remove chloride from water is reverse osmosis.

After being hit with a $220,000 fine, the Northern California city of Dixon is working toward building a $60 million reverse-osmosis plant.

When Fillmore built a state-of-the-art water-treatment plant for $69 million, city officials made sure it could facilitate reverse osmosis down the road.

Under an agreement reached in 2008, the Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District faces the prospect of building a reverse-osmosis plant for its wastewater, in spite of its board’s delay on imposing rate hikes to get the plan rolling.

The Sanitation District board has until 2012 to present the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board with an environmental impact report for the plant.

Those in the Santa Clarita Valley who think the cost of the proposed plant is set at $210 million should not be mistaken, Friess of the Sanitation District said. That’s the preliminary cost of planning, consulting and developing an environmental impact report for the plant, he said.

The full cost of the reverse-osmosis plant could be as high as $500 million, especially since the quote of $210 million does not cover extensive operating and upkeep costs.

“Between now and 2016, we have to try and make another deal (with the regional board),” Friess told Santa Clarita Valley civic leaders at an editorial board meeting this month.

No matter how you look at it, removing chloride from water is an expensive proposition.

Leading the way
In at least one respect, Santa Clarita Valley residents have led the way in reducing chloride in water.

In 2008, residents agreed to outlaw brine-discharging water softeners in November 2008.

The Signal found other towns and cities, including Fillmore and Dixon, following Santa Clarita’s preliminary steps extending buy-back rebates to ratepayers if they get rid of their water softeners.

Sanitiation officials in Santa Clarita said they shaved $70 million off the cost of the proposed reverse-osmosis plant by simply getting rid of brine-discharging water softeners.

Statewide worries
The implications of the drought extending over several years has water regulators deeply worried.

The less water to flush out chloride, the longer it concentrates in the ground.

“They’re very worried about salinity,” said Royce W. Cunningham, city engineer for Dixon. “They don’t want California to become Mesopotamia.”

The allusion to the ancient city is a reference to the ancient practice of salting the fields of one’s enemies to seal their fate, guaranteeing that nothing would ever grow on their land again.

As the drought deepens, the salt builds up.

Farmers using nitrate-laden fertilizers around Dixon make the groundwater saltier.

Homeowners still using brine-discharging water softeners in San Juan Batista make the water saltier.

Water received in Santa Clarita Valley via the California Aqueduct as part of the State Water Project is consistently salty, containing about 80 milligrams of chloride per liter on average, according to the Castaic Lake Water Agency’s general manager.

Despite giving up their brine-discharging water softeners, Santa Clarita Valley homeowners who use that water add even more salt.

The late Arthur F. Pillsbury, who served on the University of California Water Resources Center Advisory Board for several years, made some compelling observations about water, salt and agriculture in an essay published in 1981 in Scientific American:

“Many ancient civilizations rose by diverting rivers and irrigating arid lands to grow crops.

“At its peak of productivity, each irrigated region probably supported well over a million people,” Pillsbury wrote.

“All these civilizations ultimately collapsed, and for the same reason: The land became so salty that crops could no longer be grown on it.

“The salts that were washed out of the soil at higher elevations became concentrated in the irrigated fields as the water evaporated from the surface and transpired through the leaves of the growing crops.

“Although floods, plagues and wars took their toll, in the end the civilizations based on irrigation faded away because of salination.”

Comments

Commenting not available.
Commenting is not available.

 
 

Powered By
Morris Technology
Please wait ...