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Outreach on chloride in river could cost $334K

Sanitation District could decide today to spend with PR firm as it tries to let ratepayers understan

Posted: April 9, 2013 10:23 p.m.
Updated: April 9, 2013 10:00 a.m.
 

Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District directors are due to decide today whether to spend $334,000 on public outreach as the district prepares to release a plan for ridding the Santa Clara River of chloride.

“The goal of the public outreach activities is to provide clear, concise and accurate information to the public to inform the community of the process and promote public participation,” reads the district’s agenda item for the expenditure.

The money would go to a Venice-based firm called Community Conservation Solutions. According to the company’s website, it specializes in “creating dynamic public information materials” and “coordinating with public agencies and elected officials,” as well as offering scientific expertise and conducting research and analysis.

Community Conservation Solutions was paid $551,000 by the local sanitation district board in the last year and a half for earlier community outreach.

The Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District — part of a consortium of sanitation districts in Los Angeles County — proposed raising rates in 2010 to meet state expectations for reducing the amount of chloride discharged into the Santa Clara River.

The public, however, rejected those rate increases.

“We haven’t done a very good job in communicating with the public on this project,” district spokesman Phil Friess said Tuesday.

“We felt a public outreach firm would be helpful in improving our efforts.”

Neither Santa Clarita City Council member on the district board returned phone calls Tuesday. Officials with Community Conservation Solutions also did not phone back.

Chloride is a naturally occurring salt. While chloride levels in Santa Clarita Valley water are perfectly safe for human consumption, farmers down river say levels are too high and are damaging their strawberry and avocado crops.

Santa Clarita Valley wastewater, once treated, is dumped into the Santa Clara River.

Rate hike rejected

In July 2010, sanitation board members, acting on public comment, rejected a key element of a district plan already accepted by the state water board.

The plan — called the Integrated Regional Water Management Plan — called for a number of steps to be taken on the road to reducing the discharge of chloride into the watershed.

A key part of the plan called for raising sewer rates in order to build an expensive salt-ridding reverse-osmosis plant.

Those plans were derailed, however, when Santa Clarita Valley residents sent a clear message to the district board — meeting at Santa Clarita City Hall — that the proposed rate increases were unacceptable. The district board usually meets in Whittier, as it will today.

In response to the public outcry, the board postponed talk of the costly salt-ridding plan.

But the problem of chloride remained.

In November 2011, sanitation district officials turned to Community Conservation Solutions for help in conveying its message to the public, paying the firm $350,000, Friess said.

The firm received another “supplemental” payment of $201,000 for the same work on Sept. 12, 2012.

If today’s proposed public outreach package is approved, the Venice firm will have received $885,000 from the local district in the last 18 months.

Fine issued

The Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District was ordered earlier this year to pay a $225,000 fine for failing to arrive at a chloride-reduction plan by its deadline.

The district had to choose between two plans for reducing chloride and it failed, according to the water board, to tell the board in writing which plan it would act on.

The fine would have to be paid by the Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District, which would turn to ratepayers for the money. All residents on the sewer system in the Santa Clarita Valley are ratepayers.

Meantime, district employees continue technical studies for a chloride-reducing proposal that would be the “least expensive and most environmentally sensitive solution to comply with the state’s strict chloride limits in the Santa Clarita Valley,” Sanitation District officials said in a news release issued last month.

This latest plan to reduce naturally occurring salt in wastewater is expected to be ready for public review this month.

Whatever chloride-reducing system is adopted, residents who are hooked up to the sewer system in the Santa Clarita Valley — everyone except those on septic tanks — will foot the bill for the system, as well as pay the fine.

To ensure ratepayers understand why they’re expected to pay more, a public relations firm is needed, sanitation district spokeswoman Mary Jacobs said Tuesday.

“It’s needed so that people understand what is behind the (proposed) rate increases and why they have to be increased,” she said Tuesday.

The Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District meets at 1:30 p.m. at 1955 Workman Mill Road in Whittier. Board members are county Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Santa Clarita City Council members Bob Kellar and Laurene Weste.

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