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SCV challenges water cops

Local officials don’t want to thumb their nose at state water board, but they are formulating a plan

Posted: August 15, 2010 10:47 p.m.
Updated: August 16, 2010 4:55 a.m.
Santa Clarita Mayor Laurene Weste holds up the state and federal regulations that require Santa Clarita’s water to meet the standards of the Clean Water Act before a formal vote on whether to accept local sewage-rate hikes in the Santa Clarita City Council Chamber on July 27. Santa Clarita Mayor Laurene Weste holds up the state and federal regulations that require Santa Clarita’s water to meet the standards of the Clean Water Act before a formal vote on whether to accept local sewage-rate hikes in the Santa Clarita City Council Chamber on July 27.
Santa Clarita Mayor Laurene Weste holds up the state and federal regulations that require Santa Clarita’s water to meet the standards of the Clean Water Act before a formal vote on whether to accept local sewage-rate hikes in the Santa Clarita City Council Chamber on July 27.

At a raucous public hearing in July, Santa Clarita Valley residents made it clear they have no intention of shelling out $210 million from their own pockets so farmers downstream can raise salt-sensitive crops in the Santa Clara River Valley.

But the conflict unfolding over chloride levels in the river isn't between Santa Clarita Valley residents and downstream farmers; it's with the State Water Resources Control Board.

On Aug. 5, in a sort of rallying-of-the-troops, Santa Clarita Mayor Laurene Weste headed up a meeting of civic leaders, bringing together city, county and Santa Valley Clarita Sanitation District leaders with The Signal Editorial Board at the newspaper's office for a frank strategy discussion over how to deal with the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, a division of the state water board.

"This is going to be a very difficult negotiating process," Weste said.

At issue is not just rate hikes for Santa Clarita Valley residents, whose used water is treated and then discharged into the river.

"This is a business-killer," she said about the threat of higher sewer-connection fees. "With this, you're not going to see another restaurant here, another golf course (or) another car wash."

But at the end of the day, state and federal law says, Santa Clarita Valley sewer customers will still have to ensure that chloride levels do not exceed 117 milligrams per liter of water where the river flows from Los Angeles County into Ventura County.

"We have to come down to appropriate chloride levels," Weste said, expressing worry over being fined by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Chloride deadline
The Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District - which is run by a board composed of Weste, City Councilwoman Marsha McLean and Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich - has until 2015 to comply with chloride standards set by the regional water board.

That's when the board revisits the Santa Clarita Valley in earnest to see if water in the river contains less than 117 milligrams per liter of chloride.

And while the mandate of the board remains unchanged - ensuring clean-water laws are followed - the emphasis on enforcing those laws has steadily intensified each year since the Office of Enforcement's inception.

Before the Office of Enforcement was created in 2006 as a specialized unit of the State Water Resources Control Board, each of the state board's nine regional boards created its own enforcement unit.

Staff assigned to enforcement increased more than 200 percent between 2005 and the following year, according to a 2006 California Environmental Protection Agency report.

The report also noted more than $50 million in total penalties had been issued by the state water board over the "past several years" after greater emphasis was placed on enforcement.

Fifteen years ago, only 5 percent of water-quality violations resulted in formal enforcement actions, and only 1 percent resulted in the assessment of a fine, according to numbers tallied in the 1996-97 fiscal year.

A month after the Office of Enforcement was created, the largest water-quality fine in the water board's history was levied against Los Angeles County.

The Los Angeles County Sanitation District was hit with a $2.3 million fine.

Negotiated agreement
Ten years ago, the Santa Clarita Valley contaminated its only river with chloride over a three-year period.

The protracted water incident occurred under the Canyon Country hillside community of Shangri-La, northwest of Sierra Highway and Soledad Canyon Road.

Groundwater in that area - like almost all other areas in this valley - contains naturally occurring salty sulfates and chloride.

Two water pumps in the area work to ensure the hillside is kept dry, said Kevin Tonoian, technology services manager for the city of Santa Clarita.

"The Shangri-La community sits on top of a historical landslide," he explained. "So, instead of allowing the water to sit there and create a slide situation, it gets pumped out."

Keeping the land dry instead of mushy is the plan.

Although the naturally occurring water that's pumped from the ground is simply dumped into the nearby Santa Clara River, the city needs a permit to pump it out and is accountable for the levels of chloride and other pollutants in the water.

On Sept. 3, 2003, the city was hit with a $69,000 fine.

The regional water board ruled excessive amounts of chloride (as well as other salts including nitrates and sulfates) were discharged into the river between January 2000 and spring 2003.

How did civic leaders respond when confronted with fines by the regional water board?

"We worked with the regional board," Tonoian said. "We reached a negotiated agreement whereby we would pay $27,000 in fines paid to the regional board, with the remaining $42,000 put toward a supplemental environmental program."

On Oct. 6, 2003, the city cut the board a $27,000 check and attached a written promise to put $42,000 into an environmental project.

In the end, the lion's share of the fine, earmarked for an environmental program, ended up being left to the discretion of city officials.

What worked back then with the regional water board might very well work out again in the city's favor.

"We have to promote a working relationship with the board," Santa Clarita City Manager Ken Pulskamp said. "We don't want to be seen as thumbing our noses at the board."

The same call for calm was heard around the table at the editorial board meeting Aug. 5.

"I'm concerned about setting the right tone," Weste told the small group. "I don't want us to get crabby so that they won't deal with us. We are rational, logical people."

In the past, regional board members have responded well to carefully crafted arguments.

Wheel & deal
The board's fine-collectors, Ross Colby and Hugh Marley - whose signatures appear at the end of terse letters addressed to chloride violators requesting payment of fines - said they would not talk directly to The Signal about their jobs and referred all comment to one man.

Samuel Unger is the interim executive officer of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board.

He was asked if his board "haggles" with alleged water-contaminators over fines.

"I don't want to respond to that," he said.

Asked about the board's willingness to entertain rational and reasonable discussion over details of its findings, he said: "Of course. We will sit down with all stakeholders."

Such an example of understanding, compromise and cooperation unfolded recently in Ventura County.

In Oxnard, where the bulk of Ventura County's salt-sensitive strawberries grow, "rational and reasonable" discussions with the L.A. regional water board shaved more than $141,000 off a fine issued against the city.

The regional water board had fined Oxnard $156,000 for pollution violations and for allegedly failing to file its water-monitoring paperwork on time.

Public-works officials in Oxnard, however, were able to change the minds of regional board members by effectively proving they had mailed the required paperwork on time.

In September 2009, board members revised their initial fine of $156,000, instead issuing Oxnard a fine of $15,000.

Within a month, Oxnard officials told the board they would accept the lesser penalty.

Calls made to Oxnard public works officials were not returned.



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