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Polluted water still counts

Environmentally Speaking

Posted: April 10, 2008 7:18 p.m.
Updated: June 11, 2008 5:04 a.m.
Recently, a Sacramento Assemblyman introduced a bill to stop counting polluted water in Urban Water Management Plans and Water Service Assessments.

Currently, water planning law allows water agencies to count water which they have "plans" to develop in their Urban Water Management Plans and Water Supply Assessment, even when that water is contaminated and doesn't meet health standards. Apparently, polluted water is routinely counted in these plans. I agree with Assemblyman Jones that this is wrong and should be corrected.

Does this issue sound familiar to anyone? It should. Counting contaminated water has been a contentious issue in the Santa Clarita Valley for many years. Local water agencies included water polluted with ammonium perchlorate, a by-product of rocket fuel, in the Santa Clarita 2000 Urban Water Management Plan. Polluted water is also still in the 2005 water plan starting with supplies for the year 2010.

The Sierra Club and the Friends of the Santa Clara River filed public interest litigation in 2001 to try to encourage the courts to forbid this practice. After four years of legal wrangling, the court did rule that the Santa Clarita's Water Plan must be set aside and a timeline for cleanup included in the new plan. Now there is a time line that has been extended each year since 2004, with the water agencies always claiming that the cleanup facilities will be operating "next year."

Although we are sure these agencies are well intentioned in their efforts to clean this polluted water to meet health standards as quickly as possible so that it can be used, such cleanup often does not occur as rapidly as anticipated. That is the case in our valley.

Funding difficulties, development and testing of new technologies, the need for a non-existent brine line, land acquisition or permitting of facilities are among the many hurdles that can cause cleanup to take longer than anticipated.

In Santa Clarita, the city and the county have continued to approve thousands of units based on a wish and a prayer that the cleanup facilities will be there to provide water. Should the facilities not be built as planned due to financial limitations or a change in strategy (two wells in our area were simply destroyed rather than remediate the water), the result could be dire for our community.

Other supplies such as state water have become limited due to drought or other circumstances, but the contaminated wells are still not available.

Contaminants such as ammonium perchlorate that affect the thyroid gland can cause retardation in children. Volatile Organic Compounds such as TCE and NDMA are carcinogens at high concentrations, but even low concentrations can affect an individual's health. The State Department of Health Services sets drinking-water standards to ensure that water containing these pollutants is not served to the public.
But such water should also not be counted as an available supply for new development until it can actually be served to the public.

So who would oppose a bill to stop counting polluted water? The Building Industry Association, of course. They want to make sure they can get new housing developments approved, even if the water proposed for their new developments can't be served to the public. They were joined by all the Republican Assemblymen in the Water Parks and Wildlife Committee (the committee in which the bill was heard). One Republican simply stated that developers have to be able to count this water to get their housing approvals.

What was he thinking? Will it be his family drinking the water in this new development if things go wrong and the water can't be cleaned up? Undoubtedly not.

Contaminated water that doesn't meet public health standards presents a real public health risk that planners must take seriously. It should be made absolutely clear that such contaminated water cannot be used.

The best way to do that is to exclude such water from listings of water supplies in urban water management plans and water service assessments until the facilities actually exist to clean it up. When such facilities are built and functioning, it is a simple matter to amend an urban water plan to reflect that fact and begin including this water in future water supply assessments.

We urge our local water agencies and City Council to put this bill on their agendas as quickly as possible and send their support to Sacramento.

Cam Noltemeyer is a Santa Clarita Valley resident and board member for Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment (SCOPE). Her column reflects her own view and not necessarily that of The Signal.


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