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Maria Gutzeit: The delta needs to be fixed

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Posted: May 20, 2009 5:02 p.m.
Updated: May 21, 2009 4:55 a.m.
Nearly three years ago, I wrote an opinion piece in these pages about the lack of technical merit in the Regional Water Quality Control Board's (RWQCB) decision to set new lower chloride limits.

These limits foretold of the sewer rate increases now being proposed by the Sanitation Districts.

What is the basis for chloride limits? The Federal Government sets guideline levels for pollutants in water discharges.

The many RWQCBs in California were tasked with either adopting those limits or modifying them to meet regional needs.

Our RWQCB did not base their modification on any actual data, but solely on unsubstantiated testimony from farmers and on a literature review that said, "although there is clearly not enough evidence to propose an absolute threshold with the literature presently available, the best estimate of chloride hazard ranges is 100 to 120 milligram per liter."

The report listed these tentative numbers for avocados only, and reached "no conclusion" on nursery stocks or strawberries.

Citrus, which is all over the Santa Clara River valley, wasn't addressed at all. The RWQCB at that time decided to drop proposed field studies that were suggested by experts and instead immediately adopt a limit of 100, expediting the process.

As a side note, the drinking water standard for chloride is 250 mg per liter and existing chloride levels have been shown not to be harmful to humans or wildlife.

Back in 2003, a bargaining chip was offered up: we would try to get rid of the "bad kind" of water softeners.

There was little talk about the largest contributor to our chloride, the State Water Project coming from the Sacramento Bay Delta.
This source is 50 percent of our water supply and contributes 40 percent of the chloride being discharged.

And here we are today, with a perhaps artificially low chloride limit no one wanted to challenge.

We have wisely banned self-regenerating water softeners because any time you can remove a pollutant before it gets into the water, it is cheaper than removing it later.

However, the SWP issue remains a block to meeting the ultra-low limits.

To remove the salt from the SWP water, a consultant is proposing a smaller scale treatment plant, some alternate water supplies and some variable limits in salt levels from the sanitation plant.

This will still be a multimillion-dollar project and it is the cause of the price increase now being considered. Had we not removed the water softeners, it would have to be a far bigger, more expensive plant.

Nevertheless, the RWQCB limits, coupled with the salt in the SWP water, are indeed going to cost us.

SWP water starts as snowmelt in Northern California. It then runs through rivers into the delta around Sacramento. The delta is constructed much like the levees that failed in hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

Many are old, unmaintained and made of earth. Unregulated agricultural runoff and also discharges from wastewater treatment plants - both high in salt - flow into the Delta.

Due to lack of system maintenance and the design, seawater is mixing back into the freshwater system, raising the salt level further.
Up and down the state, from Tracy to Dixon to San Diego, local agencies are struggling to design and pay for expensive systems to remove salt under their various local RWQCB mandates.

Even if we decide to just "live with" the somewhat arbitrary limits, the best and most economical solution would be to remove the pollutant at the source.

Just like we stopped some of our salt by eliminating one kind of water softener, everyone should be asking the state to fix their salt problem with the Sacramento Bay Delta.

Without usable water from the delta, the economy of the state would be ruined, and farmland and factories would be shuttered.

Many regions depend on SWP water even more than Santa Clarita. Every year a new study or blue ribbon panel says fixes are necessary.

Most recently, even environmental groups agreed that routing drinking water around the failing levees would provide the best chance of environmental improvements for both Northern and Southern California.

But, as with the budget, our legislators remain paralyzed with indecision until an emergency strikes.

Studies show an earthquake, not a hurricane Katrina, is highly likely to take out the delta and its water supply, but absolutely zero infrastructure improvements have gotten the nod from our state's elected officials. (Our local representatives in Sacramento are supportive but in a distinct minority.)

The right thing would be to stop wasteful spending on spot fixes to salinity up and down the state.

Fix the delta. All at once we can protect our water supply and Northern California habitats, get rid of the salt and save local economies from wasteful and unjustified spending.

It would be a thrill if our City Council and County Supervisors, who hold several seats on the Sanitation District Board, said "no" to the rate increase and "no" to mandates from the RWQCB until a more unified, common sense solution can be implemented.

A simple Internet search yields a long list of other cities facing similar problems. Perhaps this is one time to stop thinking local and reach out to others in the same salty boat.

If reaching out doesn't work, Plan B would be to take the cost of the treatment plant and instead put that money into treating and recycling more water back into Santa Clarita.

If we don't discharge anything to the river downstream, no complaints, right? Why don't we take that water to all our parks and greenbelts instead?

Problem is, the RWQCB also is the permitting agency for recycled water, and there is also a statewide issue with inconsistencies in recycled water discharge permits. Even good alternatives bring us back to the same problem.

It's a problem that needs solving another way, because both water and money are too precious to waste these days.

Maria Gutzeit is a resident of Santa Clarita, environmental engineer and business owner. She also serves as Board President of Newhall County Water District. Her column reflects her own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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