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Posted: June 6, 2010 4:55 a.m.
Updated: June 6, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Should Santa Clarita homeowners pay $100 more in taxes every year to suck salt out of the water before we flush it down the drain?

The simple answer is "no."

It's not a simple issue. It's a complex issue with roots that run through a mishmash of bureaucratic agencies - and the answer is still "no."

How did we get here?

It started in the latter part of the Nixon administration. Earth-conscious Americans of the early 1970s woke up and realized we were destroying our environment.

Our factories, including some right here in Santa Clarita, were spewing toxic gunk into the air. Our rivers were overflowing with poisonous chemicals.

Congress passed - and Nixon and subsequent presidents signed - a host of laws that revolutionized the way goods are manufactured in this country.

If you think the Los Angeles basin is smoggy now, you should have seen - and tasted - it in the '70s.

The regulations have tightened through the years, and we're getting cleaner all the time.

In the case of our sewer and storm water runoff, it's a question of how much regulation is too much.

Born in the Nixon era and since modified, the federal Clean Water Act requires states to develop water-quality standards "applicable to all water bodies or segments of water bodies that lie within the state." That includes the Santa Clara River, where we dump our "used" water and send it to the ocean.

Why does it matter if the detergent we use to wash our clothes and dishes adds salt to the water if it's just going to become seawater, anyway?

Because there are farmers between us and the ocean, and crops don't like salt.

Try watering your plants with salty water and see what happens.

Who is responsible for making sure our wastewater doesn't kill the avocados and strawberries?

It's bureaucratic soup.

The Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District has a three-member board that consists of two Santa Clarita City Council members and one Los Angeles County supervisor.

Among other things, the Sanitation District must comply with those federally mandated state regulations that limit the amount of chemicals it can send downstream, including chloride - aka, salt.

Who sets the levels?

In California, water-quality standards are set by nine regional water quality control boards that collectively make up the State Water Resources Control Board.

For us, it's the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, and it says we've been sending too much salt to the Ventura County farmers.

What has the sanitation district done about it?

It has done exactly what the federal Environmental Protection Agency suggests.

According to EPA water quality compliance documents, "Pollution should be prevented or reduced at the source, whenever feasible."

If that isn't feasible, it should be recycled.

If that isn't feasible, it should be treated.

If that isn't feasible, it should be released into the environment in a safe manner, the EPA says.

In 2003, responding to the regional board's new, tighter limits on salt levels, the sanitation district board did the No. 1 thing the EPA recommends: source reduction. It banned the installation of new salt-based water softeners.

That didn't quite do the job. So in 2008, the Sanitation District board proposed - and Santa Clarita voters approved - a measure requiring residential owners of existing salt-based water softeners to get rid of them by June 30, 2009.

Today, no home in Santa Clarita can have the type of water softener where you have to add salt.

It worked. Removing salt-based water softeners dramatically reduced the amount of salt we're sending downriver.

In fact, at the moment, our valley is well within the limits.

The trouble is, we won't stay that way.

We were lucky to have a lot of rain this year. Water isn't too salty when the water table is high.

The salt level in both our local groundwater and our imported state water will go up again in the next drought.

In dry years, we're too salty for the Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Bottom line: Our attempt at source reduction was insufficient.

What's the No. 2 thing the EPA recommends? Recycling.

Theoretically, we could recycle all of our water and not send any of it downstream. Boy, Ventura County farmers would love that.

The possible litigation costs alone would be a nightmare to calculate, much less the cost of a valleywide water-recycling infrastructure.

No. 3? Treatment.

That's at the center of the current debate, and it's something the Sanitation District board members would prefer to avoid.

After all, in their other capacity, they're city and county politicians. They don't want to shoulder the political burden of raising your taxes any more than you want them raised.

That's why they went to great lengths in 2003 and 2008 with the water-softener ban.

It was far preferable to the alternative, which was to hit homeowners with a four-fold tax hike so they could build a $500 million water-treatment plant, complete with a brine line to the sea.

Thanks to the softener ban, we no longer need a $500 million facility.

Today, we "only" need a smaller, $210 million facility to suck the salt out of the water in dry years.

Funny, but we don't know any homeowner who's jumping at the chance to pay an extra $100 per year to build it.

The only reasonable solution is a political one.

From the softener ban to lobbying efforts - which did convince the regional board to raise the salt limit a tiny bit - no community in California has gone farther than Santa Clarita to comply.

Somehow, we must convince the regional board that enough is enough. We must convince the regional board that our efforts to employ the EPA's No. 4 pollution control method - safely releasing it into the environment - are sufficient. We must convince the regional board to let us send a little more salt downriver in dry years.

How do we do that?

It won't be easy.

Regional Water Quality Control board members are appointed by the governor. We could elect a governor who will replace them.

But political winds change, and that wouldn't be a permanent fix.

We could ask our Legislature to pass new laws that knock some sense into the regional board. But asking Sacramento to do something sensible is problematic.

We could ask Congress to intervene. But reversing course on four decades of stricter and stricter environmental regulations is unlikely.

Under Proposition 218, half of the homeowners in Santa Clarita could write letters protesting a new special tax. But even if you could get 42,000 households on the same page, it won't work. It would stop the new tax, but you'd still pay in the end.

The regional board would simply hit the Sanitation District - and ultimately you, the ratepayer - with millions of dollars in fines every day we're out of compliance, or put the district into receivership and tax you directly.

As we said, the solution won't be easy.

But every politician we've got, at every level, must try.

Our city and county representatives on the Sanitation District board are already committed to doing everything imaginable to prevent a rate hike, from lobbying to litigating.

Our state and federal lawmakers must get on board now and make it a priority.

Our politicians aren't dumb. They need to put their heads together and come up with a creative solution.

If they can stop a giant trash dump and a nasty gravel mine - both of which were supposed to be "done deals" - they can stop this.


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