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Smyth to float bill

Local assemblyman to present bill to limit water boards' ability to levy fines

Posted: August 29, 2010 6:14 p.m.
Updated: August 30, 2010 4:30 a.m.

Assemblyman Cameron Smyth

 

Santa Clarita Valley Assemblyman Cameron Smyth wants the regional water boards that issue “devastating fines” against small towns to be more accountable to the public and is calling on an oversight body to see that it happens.

“My concern is that when you have this sort of bureaucracy, and state agencies that really aren’t accountable to the public, issuing fines that are more or less arbitrary, fines that can be devastating to a community, then we need to have more oversight,” he said Friday.

“If nothing else but to give the public a better idea of what these agencies are doing,” he said.

Smyth, who represents the Santa Clarita Valley in the state capital, said he is still trying to figure out the best way to provide the public greater insight about the board and a way of making the board and its parent agency, the State Water Resources Control Board, more accountable.

Smyth said he made the comments now in response to two recent five-part series published by The Signal regarding water quality, which examined how the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board assesses quality and issues fines accordingly.

Last week, he posted an e-mail newsletter that he titled: “Relief from the Water Police.”

In it, he explains: “A recent article in The Signal focused on the exorbitant fines being levied on cities throughout the state by the California Water Resources Control Board’s Office of Enforcement. 

“Just last year, the Office of Enforcement collected almost $14 million in fines and penalties from cities just like Santa Clarita. 

“This is a frightening example of government bureaucracy run amok, and it is a growing concern at the local and state levels — particularly here in Santa Clarita, with our ongoing chloride problem,” he said.

The Signal began investigating the process of water fines in the last couple of months, when the topic of Santa Clara River water quality became a hotly contested subject as chloride levels continued 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 noncompliance fines of at least $3,000 a day and up to $10,000 a day for each of the district’s two sewer-treatment plants.

“What really caught my attention were the stories of small towns like Fillmore, which just built a brand new water-treatment facility and was hit with fines of over $230,000,” Smyth said in his e-mailed newsletter. “Or Dixon, which doesn’t even have a river, yet received chloride-related fines of $250,000. 

“Both of those cities are about one-tenth the size of Santa Clarita,” he pointed out. “If the Office of Enforcement is imposing fines like that on Fillmore and Dixon, a city the size of Santa Clarita, with a well publicized chloride controversy, looks like a very attractive target.”

“These policies are really devastating,” Smyth told The Signal.

He said he wants keep track of when the water boards meet and make sure there’s a public turnout.

“In the next few days, the legislature will hear SB 1284, a bill that will provide some relief to cities that are struggling to comply with the mandatory minimum penalties they face,” he wrote in the newsletter.

“Existing law provides that a mandatory minimum penalty of $3,000 must be assessed against wastewater treatment plants for each ‘serious violation,’ which includes failure to file a discharge monitoring report — regardless of whether any illegal discharge actually occurs. 

“Additionally, the law requires a $3,000 penalty to be assessed every 30 days after a missed deadline for submitting a report.  In theory, if a facility is required to submit a report every quarter and fails to submit any reports for nine months, the penalties would amount to roughly $53,000 — even if there were no wastewater violations!

“SB 1284, sponsored by the League of California Cities and authored by Senator Denise Ducheny, will establish a cap on some of these penalties - particularly those that stem from nonwastewater violations.  This will give cities some economic relief during these tough times, and will provide wastewater-treatment plants with more flexibility to upgrade their facilities.

“My hope is that SB 1284 is one of many legislative efforts to address these blatant power grabs by unelected boards. I recognize that they have a job to do and rules to enforce, but I also believe that the limits of their power need to be clearly delineated.  As I work to develop my legislative package for next year, this is an issue that will continue to be at the forefront of my agenda.”

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