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Water board not an easy plunge

Government: Roadblocks abound for taking seats on regional body, which controls chloride standards

Posted: April 18, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: April 18, 2011 1:55 a.m.
 

A completed application form sits on the desk of local water official B. J. Atkins.

It’s his written request for appointment to a seat on the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Atkins is on the fence about whether to mail it off to Sacramento for Gov. Jerry Brown’s consideration.

“I’m looking at what it takes in terms of time,” he said. “I have a meeting (Wednesday night), a meeting Thursday. Every week, there’s something.

“My wife already refers to herself as a ‘water widow.’”

The time commitment, however, is just one of the roadblocks Atkins faces on his way to the powerful regional board representing the water interests of the Santa Clarita Valley — and offering a local voice on the hotly contested issue of chloride reduction.

Reducing chloride content in the Santa Clara River became a hotly debated topic last summer after the Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District announced plans to raise rates in order to pay for salt-ridding plants — all to meet the chloride levels set by the regional board. Fines for noncompliance would be about $10,000 a day.

No member on the regional board is from the Santa Clarita Valley, but some locals are considering applying.

Their roadblocks include: conflict-of-interest rules, no money paid to them outside a $100 stipend per meeting, regular commutes across the county, volumes of technical homework and, not to mention, the governor’s tendency to appoint Democrats.
 
Nine regional boards
The regional board is one of nine in California mandated to uphold the federal Clean Water Act of 1972. Each board has nine members, and all of them are appointed by the governor, not elected.

The Santa Clarita Valley has a chance to gain better control of its water destiny this fall, when five of the nine seats on the ruling water board come up for grabs.

Three seats are empty now. The terms of two more expire in 18 weeks.

This means the makeup and character of the board mandated to rule on chloride content in the Santa Clara River are yet to be fully defined.

Atkins, who serves on the Newhall County Water District board of directors and is its liaison member to the Castaic Lake Water Agency board, asked a friend who sits on the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board for insight and advice.

“He told me ‘What other (agency) affects millions of dollars and millions of people, but pays nothing?’” Atkins said.

The Brown priority
Gov. Jerry Brown has yet to appoint anyone to any of the nine regional boards in the state, including Los Angeles.
Since elected, Brown has placed a high value on water earmarked for agriculture.

In Brown’s seven-step plan to “protect water quality and supplies,” the importance of water for farmers nearly tops his list.
Brown’s second priority, after ensuring safe drinking water for Californians, is agriculture.

To that end, Brown plans to create an Office of Agricultural Water Supply Improvement “to facilitate water sales and transfers benefiting agriculture.”

Brown’s focus on agriculture underscores a need for balance on the water boards, Atkins said.

“Many of the people on the board are handpicked by the agricultural community,” he said. “We need to be making reasoned decisions, and that’s not what’s coming out of the regional board.

“Maybe it’s time,” he said.

The Brown identity
Kevin Korenthal, who ran for a seat on the Castaic Lake Water Agency last year, said he wants to sit on the regional board.

“Now that I know there’s multiple seats available, I’m going to take a stab at it,” he said last week.

“There are a lot of pressing issues near and dear to my heart,” he added, citing chloride as one of them.

Korenthal, executive director of the trade association Associated Builders and Contractors, California Cooperation Committee, said he considered running last year but was deterred when California elected a Democratic governor.

Korenthal is Republican.

“The election did throw cold water on that idea,” he said, referring to Brown’s track record of appointing mostly Democrats to various state boards and agencies since January.

Conflicting interests
Maria Gutzeit is one of the few people who applied for a seat on the regional board in 2006, when chloride was first coming into its own as a pressing local issue.

Gutzeit, like Atkins, sits on the Newhall County Water District board.

Like Atkins, who is part owner of Atkins Environmental HELP (Hazard and Environmental Liability Professionals) Inc., Gutzeit runs an environmental consulting company — Compliance Plus — working with companies on the quality of water they discharge.

What felled Gutzeit — who withdrew her application — was a conflict-of-interest rule. Water board members can’t receive more than 10 percent of their income from money collected from those holding permits to discharge water. That is, unless those permit holders are in the agriculture industry.

“Why is anyone who makes a living in the water industry ruled out?” Gutzeit asked. “And why does agriculture have an exception to that rule which lets them get an income from permitted dischargers?”

If Atkins, too, is exempt – and he thinks he might be – who is left to represent the Santa Clarita Valley on the board?

The Clean Water Act
Lynne Plambeck, like Atkins and Gutzeit, sits on the board of the Newhall County Water District.

Plambeck, who’s also president of the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment, said she didn’t know if she would apply for the regional board seat.

“I’ve thought about it,” she said. “But I think my first duty is to my elected office.

“The board has to follow the Clean Water Act and rule in compliance with it, appreciating there are seven beneficial uses,” she said of the regional office.

Farmers and agricultural interests reflect one of the “beneficial uses” defined by the state in response to the Clean Water Act. Natural habitats are another, Plambeck said.

Plambeck said regional board members who protect the environment and work to preserve natural habitats by demanding no more than 100 milligrams of chloride per liter of discharged water would be addressing the spirit of the Clean Water Act.

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