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Wallets may drown in high water bills

Analysis: Chloride levels may cause money problems for city businesses

Posted: March 10, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: March 10, 2011 1:55 a.m.

Andy Hooper, of Terry Farms in Ventura County, takes a moment to show how chloride affects strawberries, the county’s top cash crop since 2001. Santa Clarita residents and businesses are facing fee increases to pay for water-filtration plants to reduce levels of the naturally occuring salt — or face heavy fines if the water is not filtered.

Santa Clarita businesses and residents are facing significant increases in their water fees over the next few years to cover the cost of building new water-filtration plants to reduce levels of the naturally occurring salt chloride in runoff from the Santa Clara River.

What began decades ago as an effort to protect residents from drinking polluted industrial water, the Clean Water Act now incorporates standards to protect the foods we eat, as well.

However, the chloride issue is not related to any injury from polluted water or food. The issue relates to the harm high concentrations of chloride might do to salt-sensitive crops such as avocados and strawberries growing in Ventura County, where the water flows after it’s treated and discharged.

Residents and businesses are asking whether it’s equitable to require Santa Clarita Valley residents to pay higher sewage rates so that farmers downstream can grow crops that are not indigenous to the area and that are extra-sensitive to chloride.

The question is paramount because proposed rate hikes to build chloride-removing water-treatment plants could cripple businesses dependent on large amounts of water, such as restaurants and laundromats.

And increased sewage connection fees could become a barrier to future businesses opening in the Santa Clarita Valley and to its reputation as a business-friendly community.

Double increases
The Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District has already requested a rate increase to keep its operation going.

The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board would add another rate increase for plants to remove chloride from wastewater. The cost of building the plants has been estimated as high as $500 million.

“I understand the problem over chloride, and what may be affecting farmers down the river — but there’s got to be a better way of doing that,” local restaurateur Greg Amsler said last June. “All it does is put up a roadblock to future businesses that might want to move here.”

In the end, protecting chloride-sensitive crops pits segments of the local business community against the Ventura County farming industry. And the issue leaves all local residents to pick up the tab to keep those crops growing.

Water primer
In The Signal’s ongoing series on chloride by investigative reporter Jim Holt, it was reported that SCV imports water from Northern California via the State Water Project that already contains 80 milligrams of chloride per liter. Additional chloride enters the water runoff as it passes through urban development areas.

The crops in question are said to require water with chloride levels less than 117 milligrams per liter.

In times of drought, the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board allows the chloride levels to reach 130 milligrams per liter because of naturally occurring higher levels of chloride concentration building up in the soil.

Depending on when water samples are measured, SCV averages 130 milligrams per liter in runoff water. During rainy season, levels are generally lower because chloride is washed out of the soil.

Chloride levels topped 150 milligrams per liter only twice from June 2000 to December 2006 in measurements taken in the Santa Clara River, and the 79-month average was 125.67 milligrams per liter.

Magic number

Critics of the set 117 milligrams per liter number say there’s insufficient evidence that such low levels are necessary.

The Clean Water Act of 1972 set the standard for chloride content in river water at 100 milligrams per liter. But subsequent studies placed acceptable levels at different marks when the Water Quality Control Board revisited the issue.
However, the water board did not conduct a new scientific study for the Santa Clara River question. It opted instead to perform a peer review of studies done elsewhere and dating back to the 1960s.

A 1999 report said “the 100 milligrams-per-liter value is the result of an incorrectly interpreted reference,” but it became the mandated target for county sanitation districts.

Ironically, humans can handle chloride levels in the water that reach 250 milligrams per liter, according to the Environmental Protection Agency and the state board of health.

And when the environmental engineering firm CH2M Hill performed a peer review of existing literature, the firm noted: “There is no literature stating that chloride or salt stress during flowering affects or does not affect (the) fruit.”

However, none of this information changes the Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District’s legal obligation to build the water-treatment plants.

Calls for remedies
If the city or county do not comply with the Water Quality Control Board standards, it can levy daily fines up to $10,000 for every day SCV fails to be in compliance.

The Signal’s investigative series also revealed that the state Water Board issued an unprecedented number of fines against small towns — often in the millions of dollars. The fines were levied during the Great Recession when cities across the state were struggling to keep budgets from plunging deeper into the red.

The chloride stories prompted Santa Clarita Valley Assemblyman Cameron Smyth to announce in August 2010 that he wants the regional water boards to be more accountable to the public, calling on an oversight body to see that it happens.

Santa Clarita City Councilwoman Marsha McLean also called on fellow city representatives at a League of California Cities conference in September to sign a resolution insisting that the state provide cities with adequate funding to pay for special regulatory fees.

Meanwhile, the farming industry says it did not set the chloride standard and that growing less-sensitive crops is not the sole answer.

In a December story, Ventura County strawberry farmers, when interviewed, revealed that chloride was only a problem in times of drought. Normally, regular levels of rainfall wash chloride from the soil and away from plants.

In today’s global economy, farmers are competing with growers from around the world. They  contribute $2.6 billion to the state economy.

Water tab
The bill to erect the water-treatment plants would cost all residents.

Annual sewage rates were projected to spike from $199 to $296 to design a $210 million water-treatment plant. If the cost of the plant increases, residents and businesses alike would see their rates jump even higher.

Any rate increases for water treatment would come on top of the current proposed rate increases to bring water bills up to $247 annually by the year 2014 to meet existing water-management expenses.

That means that if approved, the estimates for building water plants could double the costs for water customers.

The flip side — not complying — could cost $3.6 million a year, costs that would be borne by sewage ratepayers.

Sewage connection fees for new businesses would jump considerably, but specific rates have not yet been projected, according to John Gulledge of the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts.

“If a business discharges 10 times as much (sewage) as a single-family home, they pay the equivalent of 10 homes,” said Steve Maguin, general manager and chief engineer for the district overseeing the Santa Clarita Valley.

More than 6,000 rate-hike protests were received by the Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District last July, when district officials held meetings in a standing-room only hearing. The vote on proposed sewer hikes was delayed until this spring.

But the deadline is looming: the district has until 2014 to be in compliance.

Forum topic

The Valley Industry Association is presenting a panel Tuesday at its monthly luncheon, which will be open to non-members, to discuss the chloride issue.

Speaking on the panel will be Holt of The Signal; Phil Friess of the Los Angeles County Sanitation District; Laurene Weste, Santa Clarita City Council member; and Lila Littlejohn, executive editor of The Signal. The panel will be moderated by Ian Lamont, publisher of The Signal.


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