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Chloride: Exploring the water quality issue outside the box

Posted: May 31, 2015 10:10 a.m.
Updated: May 31, 2015 10:10 a.m.
Should our local sanitation district officials start considering “outside the box” solutions to the Santa Clarita Valley’s costly chloride problem, which has been dogging the area for years? A few local leaders think so. Should our local sanitation district officials start considering “outside the box” solutions to the Santa Clarita Valley’s costly chloride problem, which has been dogging the area for years? A few local leaders think so.
Should our local sanitation district officials start considering “outside the box” solutions to the Santa Clarita Valley’s costly chloride problem, which has been dogging the area for years? A few local leaders think so.
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Should our local sanitation district officials start considering “outside the box” solutions to the Santa Clarita Valley’s costly chloride problem, which has been dogging the area for years? A few local leaders think so.

Under the federal Clean Water Act passed in 1972, downstream “beneficial users” of the Santa Clara River, such as Ventura County farmers growing salt-sensitive strawberries and avocados, are entitled to uncontaminated river water.

Since 2002, state water regulators have defined “uncontaminated water” as containing no more than 100 milligrams of chloride per liter in the Santa Clara River. Allowable chloride levels elsewhere vary, but few in the state are lower than 100 mg/L.

For the past 13 years, Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District staffers have wrestled with various ways of meeting the 100 mg/L level for the naturally occurring component of common table salt.

The search for a plan that satisfies water quality regulators and residents alike has been long, arduous and costly — with the prospect of expenses rising even higher for Santa Clarita Valley businesses and households in the future. It has prompted some officials and observers to say it’s time for an out-of-the-box solution to resolve the problem.

The Signal took a close look at those out-of-the-box proposals:

Bypass the permit process
Assemblyman Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, called the current chloride-reducing process — spelled out in the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit program — arbitrary and not based on science.

“This has always been an arbitrary process,” he told The Signal. “On the face of it, the whole thing appears to be illegal.”

Wilk cited a more generous chloride level set for downstream NPDES permit holders at Calleguas Creek in Ventura County.

“We’re talking about the exact same users downstream,” he said. “If we were at 150 mg/L, we could all go home.”

But there’s no side-stepping the NPDES process, said State Water Resources Control Board spokesman Andrew DiLuccia.

“The NPDES program is a requirement of the federal Clean Water Act. Any person discharging waste to waters of the United States is required to obtain an NPDES permit,” he said. “There is strict liability.”

So if you can’t ignore state water regulators, what about suing them?

Sue the state
Wilk told constituents recently: “There is insufficient scientific evidence to show Ventura County farmers downstream have been harmed by the chloride level.

“Consequently, I encourage the Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District board to seriously consider litigating this matter,” he said.

Suing the state successfully over pollutant levels such as chloride is rare but can be done, according to Kathie Smith, spokeswoman for the California Water Resources Control Board.

Local civic leaders raised the option of suing state officials over water regulations in 2013 when the regional water quality board slapped the SCV Sanitation District with a $225,000 fine for non-compliance.

“If the question is about challenging the water boards’ planning and permitting actions, the history of successful lawsuits is a bit more complex,” Smith said.

“The water boards prevail in the vast majority of the lawsuits challenging their water quality actions,” she said.

Elected regulators, not appointed
Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, one of three members on the SCV Sanitation District board, said recently it’s time to change the structure of the regional water boards, making members elected and not appointed.

“The chloride level is arbitrary and not specified by state legislation,” he said publicly. “When we hold a meeting here, we’re looking at due process, where you have the right to face your accuser.”

Ratepayers would have the power to confront their accusers, he said, if they could vote them out of office.

State water regulators said it doesn’t matter if board members are elected or appointed.

“Certain actions of the water board are already subject to challenge by filing a petition with the state board and then filing suit in court,” spokesman DiLuccia said.

“The method of appointment of water board members would not change the requirements of federal law.”

Unfunded state mandates
An unfunded mandate is a regulation requiring a local government to perform certain actions by the state — with no money provided by the state for fulfilling those requirements.

In 2013, Wilk spearheaded a move to have the chloride-limit-setting process declared an unfunded state mandate, backing a motion filed by SCV sanitation officials to turn the cost of chloride reduction over to the state.

Perhaps a good idea but, in January 2014, the Commission on State Mandates rejected the bid.

Some local critics say the district should have appealed the decision.

Sanitation District board member Laurene Weste said an appeal comes with a price tag. “At what point do you say the fight is not worth the money?

“How much of the taxpayers’ hard-earned money are we going to spend fighting and going after unfunded mandates?” she said. “We can say, ‘OK, I can keep spending money’ or ‘I can try to solve the problem.’”

Demand salt-free state water
Chloride levels are already high when they reach the Santa Clarita Valley through the State Water Project. About half the water consumed in the Santa Clarita Valley is imported via the State Water Project.

Antonovich has repeatedly asked water regulators why they can’t reduce chloride levels in that water. Weste, like-minded, has the answer: “It’s too expensive for the state.”

Reducing chloride levels in water sent to the SCV from Northern California would require reversing the problem of saltwater intrusion into the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

“It’s all about the Delta; no one has ever stepped up and suggested how to do it,” Weste said. “And who pays for it? The bottom line is that we (taxpayers) pay for everything.”

Dam the river
A handful of fed-up citizens have suggested the Santa Clara River be dammed, keeping all of the water in the Santa Clarita Valley.

Said state spokesman DiLuccia: “This would be a violation of federal law.”

Outside the box
Should Santa Clarita Valley ratepayers pursue any of these “outside the box” options in challenging the state on chloride-level-setting, could the state retaliate by seizing control?

”The answer to that question is no,” spokesman DiLuccia said.

“In the event of noncompliance with the permit, the Los Angeles Regional (Water Quality Control) Board could pursue enforcement, including assessment of penalties, issue a cease and desist order, or terminate the (NPDES) permit,” he said, calling a move to terminate a permit “an extreme measure.”

He said the regional board would first try work with the Sanitation District to meet the requirements of federal and state law.

So until someone steps outside the box and finds an alternative way of addressing river contamination, Santa Clarita Valley ratepayers can take pride in a track record of working well within the system, including voting to deprive themselves of salt-generating water softeners, Weste said.

“We’ve worked within a paradigm set up by the EPA and handed down to Sacramento and then to the state’s regional boards, and we’ve battled with all the onerous issues,” she said.

“We brought a half-billion (dollar) cost down to under $130 million,” she of the price tag for a 2008 chloride-reduction plan compared to the latest estimated cost.

jholt@signalscv.com
661-287-5527
on Twitter @jamesarthurholt

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