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Officials hunt for chloride culprits

Local leaders are on the search for illegal softeners as deadline looms for a plan

Posted: June 20, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: June 20, 2011 1:55 a.m.

Lab analyst Roger Casey tests a sample of wastewater to meet state standards at the Valencia Water Reclamation Plant on Friday.

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With a looming deadline to comply with water standards or pay up, local sanitation district and city officials are teaming up to track down scofflaws still using salt-discharging water softeners.

“We have inspectors to enforce the ordinance that allows us to issue a notice of violation,” said Dave Snyder of the sanitation district.

“We can issue fines, which are a misdemeanor and which could mean 30 days in jail,” Snyder said.
Santa Clarita spokeswoman Gail Ortiz said the city is preparing to “crack down on rogue water softeners.”

“Residents need to adhere to (the law),” Ortiz said.

Local residents and customers of the Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District agreed in 2008 to become the first community in the United States to voluntarily get rid of water softeners that discharge salt into the sewage system.

Measure S took effect on Jan. 1, 2009, and some 7,200 residents forfeited their softeners. The move reduced levels of chloride from discharged water by 55 to 60 milligrams per liter.

But the sanitation district stands a tad bit over the chloride limit imposed by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, recently released numbers indicate. And the board is not inclined to give the valley an exception to the rule, a water board official said last week.

Officials estimate 500 residents are still harboring illegal water softeners. Removing all those softeners could save the rest of the valley’s residents the threatened fines, sanitation district officials say.

Sewer users could pay
The board has consistently said it will issue fines of at least $20,000 a day against the sanitation district for every day it exceeds water-discharge standards of 100 milligrams per liter for chloride, a naturally occurring salt that farmers downriver say is damaging their crops.

Sanitation district customers would pick up the tab.

The latest district reading of chloride measured at the Ventura County line was 101 milligrams per liter.

Sewage from local residences and businesses flows into one of two treatment plants that serve the valley. After treatment, it is discharged into the Santa Clara River and flows into Ventura County, where it is used for crops and other purposes.

While the treatment plants make the water safe, they were not built to remove chloride.

A plan was brokered several years ago to meet the 100-milligram chloride level, and the board allowed for a more lenient temporary level if the district moved ahead with plans to construct a reverse-osmosis plant at an initial cost of $250 million.

But ratepayers last summer balked at the higher rates that would fund the new plant. Hikes would be stiff for residential users, but they were called prohibitive for  businesses that use a lot of water, including restaurants and laundromats.

The district has until June 27 to come up with an alternative plan or begin paying the daily fines.

2 permanent solutions
Removing illegal softeners is one of three key factors in reducing overall chloride and one of two “permanent” solutions, according to district spokesman Phil Friess.

The other two key factors affecting chloride levels are lower levels of chloride in state water and higher levels of rainfall.

“We’re not seeing as much salt in state water imported by this community,” Friess said. “This is the result of court ordered restrictions.”

A federal court judge in 2007 prohibited “back flow” of salty water into the system that delivers State Water Project water to Southern California. The order meant less salty water coming into the Santa Clarita Valley, which means less salt in the water discharged into the river.

The Santa Clarita Valley gets about 50 percent of its water from the State Water Project. The rest is from groundwater sources.

Drought is the factor that remains out of control. When rainfall is reduced, salt concentrations in the river increase — and there’s little anyone can do about it.

Standards must be met
Sam Unger, executive officer of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, personally signed each of two notices of violation sent to the local sanitation district in May.

He took issue with a Castaic Lake Water Agency memo cited by The Signal in a recent article saying the water quality board might defer or eliminate portions of the water plan it had already approved.

“We never agreed that any portion of the (Alternative Water Resources Management) Plan be deferred,” Unger said Wednesday.

“Several members on the (regional water) board have made it clear that the district is expected to implement the plan or adhere to the chloride standards,” he said, referring to the 100-milligrams-per-liter standard.

The board notice of violation, which gave the district a month to come up with an alternative plan, threatens fines of $10,000 a day for each of the district’s water treatment plants discharging chloride in excess of the target amount.

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