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Polluted water shouldn't count

Environmentally Speaking

Posted: May 22, 2008 6:39 p.m.
Updated: July 23, 2008 5:03 a.m.
In 2000, after our comments were dismissed, the Friends of the Santa Clara River challenged the Castaic Lake Water Agency in court for overstating the water available to Santa Clarita for existing residents and new development in its Urban Water Management Plan. Four years later, the court finally came to the conclusion that we were right, and that the water agencies had not made the issue of contaminated water clear in their plan.

In its final decision, the court asked the water agencies to indicate how much water was polluted and to show a timeline that would indicate when that water would be available to serve residents.

Incorporated into state law since the early 1980s, UWMPs are intended to give city and county decision-makers information about water availability in their communities so they will not approve projects when water isn't there to supply the new building. It was hoped that understanding the limits to their water supply would encourage these decision-makers to do better planning for their communities by taking appropriate measures to ensure water use efficiency.

After a severe drought in the early 1990s and a burgeoning population in semi-desert Southern California, with Santa Clarita being a prime example, it became obvious there was still a huge disconnect between water supply planning and approvals for new development. Water supplies were overstated and water that wasn't really available except on paper (known as "paper water") was included in plans and Environmental Impact Reports to make it appear water supplies were adequate.

Many water agencies, including Castaic Lake Water Agency, didn't at first provide the state-mandated Urban Water Management Plan. When they finally wrote their first plan in 2000, they overstated the amount of water available.

As a result of this continuing problem, the state legislature enacted the "Show me the water" Laws, SB610 and SB221, which went into effect in 2002 and required water supply assessments for new development projects.

Castaic followed the court decision and stopped counting "paper water" in the first five years of their plan. Newhall County Water District (NCWD), whose board at that time was elected on a platform of "Honest and Accurate Water Supply Reporting" and "Not Counting Polluted Water," also stopped including the production from pumps that were closed due to the ammonium perchlorate pollution in local groundwater.

(Ammonium perchlorate, prevalent in high levels at the now-closed Whittaker-Bermite plant, has long been used in solid rocket production and has contaminated groundwater in many parts of Southern California. It affects the thyroid gland by interrupting the production of thyroxin even in very low quantities. In high quantities it can cause cancer. This contaminant particularly affects children and fetuses and can apparently cause retardation).

However, some water agencies have continued to count water that is polluted and cannot be served to the public as part of the supply.

Castaic Lake Water Agency continues to provide information to the County that indicates water from wells closed due to high perchlorate levels will be cleaned and available "next year." They have been saying this since 2004.

Water clean-up is expensive. In the case of ammonium perchlorate, a clean-up method not requiring a brine line did not exist and had to be invented and approved for drinking water. Funding for the facilities needed to clean the water is hard to find. Acquiring land on which to build these facilities is a lengthy process, subject to delays, and could require eminent domain actions in some cases. Yet, in the case of Santa Clarita, the city and the county were told that cleaned-up water would be available by 2010. Thousands of houses were approved in the belief that that was the case.

Now, halfway through 2008, only a year and a half from when those facilities must be on line to accommodate new housing, and with water agencies once again facing cutbacks of imported water, ground has not yet been broken for the clean-up facilities. Headlines in The Signal a few weeks ago lamented the news that hoped-for funding from the federal government would probably not be forthcoming anytime soon.

For the past eight years, Friends of the Santa Clara River have joined with the Sierra Club in calling for the water agencies to avoid counting polluted water until the facilities were in place to actually clean it to drinking water standards. Obviously, such water cannot be served to the public until these standards are met - so why are the agencies counting it? It seemed to us that this was just one more form of "paper water" and should not be counted until actually usuable.

So you can imagine how pleased we were to find that Assemblyman Jones in Sacramento was carrying a bill that would do just that. AB2046 says that water cannot be counted in Urban Water Management Plans or Water Supply Assessments until it meets drinking water standards. That means the clean-up facilities must be there in order to count it.

We are sure most people would consider this only common sense. We don't want to have a water shortage because the county and city approved new development based on water supply projections that counted contaminated water that cannot be served to the public. Who would oppose such a bill? Well, naturally, the Building Industry Association (BIA), along with water board members whose election campaigns were aided by donations from this organization.

So it was no surprise last week when the four NCWD board members who have received donations from the BIA in previous elections voted not to support AB2046. It was also no surprise that only board member Lynne Plambeck, who has often raised the perchlorate issue and had made it part of her campaign platform, supported this sensible water planning legislation.

We applaud her for her perseverance and efforts to protect the public. We further urge all Santa Clarita citizens to contact Assemblyman Jones (State Capitol, Rm. 3146, Sacramento, CA 95814) and support this legislation.

It is abundantly clear that our decision-makers must know how much water is really available and how much cannot be served to the public because of contamination. We believe this legislation is a good step toward making that happen.

Ron Bottorff is Chairman of Friends of the Santa Clara River ( His column represents his own views, not necessarily those of The Signal.


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