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Steve Maguin: Federal regulations mandate costly chloride cleanup

SCV Voices

Posted: May 23, 2009 10:26 p.m.
Updated: May 24, 2009 4:55 a.m.
Editor's note: The following column was submitted as a response to Sen. George Runner's May 17 column about water softeners and Measure S.

The directors and staff of the Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District share Sen. George Runner's frustration with the significant rate increase currently proposed for wastewater service in the Santa Clarita Valley over the next three years, with estimated increases four years beyond, primarily to comply with chloride regulations imposed by the state Regional Water Quality Control Board.

The Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts provide Santa Clarita Valley residents and businesses with high-quality wastewater management services while protecting water quality, public health and the environment.

The current cost to provide this service is $14.92 per month, less than one-half of the statewide average monthly household wastewater rate.

Rising wastewater chloride (salt) levels over the past decade have contributed to conditions that may harm downstream agriculture dependent on water from the Santa Clara River.

This increase in chloride is attributable to higher salt levels in imported water from the San Francisco Bay-Sacramento Delta and from the use of residential automatic water softeners.

Long before 2002 - when the state Regional Water Quality Control Board first proposed new chloride regulations for the district's two treatment plants to protect downstream water users, as required by the federal Clean Water Act - the district had been working with the Regional Water Quality Control Board to establish regulations so that removal of all automatic water softeners alone would bring chloride output into compliance.

Sen. Runner stepped up with SB 475, which put in motion Measure S to require removal of softeners following the district's multiyear voluntary removal program.

In 2002, the Sanitation District pushed for time to conduct scientific studies, again, in hope that the results would support compliance by water softener removal alone.

In 2004, the regional board modified the provisions in the regulations to provide for the extensive studies that the district requested.

Those studies, completed in 2008, failed to provide sufficient scientific evidence necessary to change the chloride regulations to the degree necessary to avoid expensive advanced treatment upgrades.

The Sanitation District immediately renewed efforts to convince the Regional Water Quality Control Board and major stakeholders (primarily water and agricultural interests in Ventura County) to develop an alternate compliance approach for the board's consideration to avoid extensive treatment-plant upgrades that, along with requisite water softener removal, would cost about $500 million.

That effort succeeded, and while the final regulations adopted in December 2008 did not eliminate the costly project, it did cut the cost in half, to about $250 million, including water softener removal.

The success of Measure S was critical to gaining Regional Water Quality Control Board and stakeholder acceptance of the alternate regulatory approach by demonstrating the Santa Clarita Valley's commitment to reducing chloride levels as quickly as possible.

The removal of the softeners also reduced the cost of compliance by nearly $75 million.

Without question, the compliance costs for these chloride regulations are enormous for a district this size to bear, but despite years of studies, no cheaper compliance option that is acceptable to state regulators and Ventura County farmers has been identified.

Inaction would not alleviate the need to comply with the board's directive. It would, however, leave us with fewer years during which to raise rates sufficiently to fund the project.

In addition, as mentioned earlier, the regulatory programs carried out by the water quality board stem from the federal Clean Water Act.

That regulatory structure includes penalties for noncompliance that could add to the cost of the project when implemented.

Balancing environmental protection with cost concerns is never easy, but the Sanitation District has worked for more than 10 years with the board to do that to the maximum extent possible on behalf of the residents and businesses in the Santa Clarita Valley.

Steve Maguin is chief engineer and general manager of the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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