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Salt-of-the-earth solution

Drought conditions, agriculture are more responsible for chloride than ratepayers, says upstreamers

Posted: August 19, 2010 7:57 p.m.
Updated: August 20, 2010 4:30 a.m.
Royce W. Cunningham, city engineer for Dixon, stops by one of the town’s many irrigation ditches which is about 30 feet from one of five wells he uses to monitor chloride levels in water. Royce W. Cunningham, city engineer for Dixon, stops by one of the town’s many irrigation ditches which is about 30 feet from one of five wells he uses to monitor chloride levels in water.
Royce W. Cunningham, city engineer for Dixon, stops by one of the town’s many irrigation ditches which is about 30 feet from one of five wells he uses to monitor chloride levels in water.

DIXON — If you take Interstate 80 from Oakland to Sacramento, you’ll pass near the tiny farming town of Dixon.

In many ways, this town is a lot like Fillmore.

Same population size, same median wages — about 14,000 people with a median household income of about $45,000.

Both towns grew up around tracks laid by the railroad a century and a half ago when the West was expanding.

Both towns sit in the middle of farm fields and are surrounded by farmers.

The favored crop in Fillmore is oranges; in Dixon, it’s tomatoes.

And both towns were fined almost a quarter of a million dollars in 2008 for violating water-quality laws.

That’s the year the Office of Enforcement collected $13.65 million in fines for the State Water Resources Control Board, the most ever collected by the state board in a single fiscal year.

Close to a half-million dollars of the money in that pot came from the two tiny farm towns of Dixon and Fillmore.
‘We paid the price’

Fillmore was fined $231,000 for discharging excessive amounts of water containing a variety of closely monitored chemicals, including chloride, into the Santa Clara River.

Dixon was charged with $220,000 for discharging excessive amounts of chloride into its groundwater.

“The big issue for us is salinity,” said Dixon Mayor Jack Bachelor. “We have argued, and we continue to argue, that effluent from farm use represents the majority of salt already in the ground.”

“It’s because we’re surrounded by agriculture,” Bachelor said. “The growers spray and fertilize, and we believe a natural salinity percolates into the groundwater.

“It’s not caused by ratepayers,” he said. “But we lost that argument. We paid the price.”

As the Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District did earlier this year, Dixon civic leaders sent out protest letters to ratepayers, as required by law under Proposition 218.

In the SCV, the goal was for homeowners to register their opposition to a sewage rate hike aimed at building a $210 million reverse-osmosis plant to rid the Santa Clara River of salty chloride.

In Dixon, the goal was for homeowners to oppose rate hikes earmarked for a plan to move the water-treatment plant to an area of Dixon where the water has a naturally higher salinity.

Just as in the Santa Clarita Valley, not enough Dixon homeowners signed and returned those protest letters to put a halt to the rate hikes.

In the case of the Santa Clarita Valley, the Sanitation District board voted to delay a rate hike as it sought alternatives.

Civic leaders say the rate hike would devastate the Santa Clarita Valley economy.

Dixon saw a small-scale tax revolt. Some of its residents formed the Dixon Salino Taxpayers Association, which sponsored a ballot initiative to overturn the proposed rate hikes.

Just as the Santa Clarita Valley will, Dixon was left to deal with the water-quality board about chloride.

“We attempted to renegotiate the cease-and-desist order from the board and ask them not to lay the fine,” Bachelor said.

“They did not acquiesce and they fined us.”

Fertilizers high in salts

Dixon farmer Dustin Timothy has been growing tomatoes for more than 33 years.

He laughs at the mention of chloride content in the water around Dixon.

He’s not laughing to be smug or unsympathetic to his in-town friends fretting over a $250,000 chloride fine. He laughs because the soil naturally contains chloride, and also because he’s looking at a salty soil sample while on the phone with The Signal.

“I’m looking at a soil sample right now,” he said. “Our water around here is pretty salty.”

Although he knows fertilizers, pesticides and insecticides contain chemicals that end up in water runoff, Timothy and most farmers use those chemicals.

Timothy waters all his crops with groundwater pumped out of wells on his family’s 3,500-acre Ronald Timothy Farms land on rural Runge Road.

After listing a few salty components in the fertilizers he uses, including nitrates, he laughs again.

“You’re picking up all our runoff,” he said of the Santa Clarita Valley’s downstream position in the State Water Project’s water distribution. “It all gets dumped back into the California aqueduct.”

Reining in pollution
Despite adding some salts to the soupy mix of water that finds its way back into the groundwater around Dixon, Timothy says city folk contribute more chloride to the mix than do farmers.

“People make a much larger impact on chloride than we do,” he said.

Nevertheless, the regional water board that hit Dixon with a quarter of a million dollars in fines is taking steps to hold farmers like Timothy accountable.

Cecile DeMartini is a member of the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, which fined Dixon.

“We’re actually creating an order to be presented to the agricultural industry,” she told The Signal, “calling on them to be responsible for the fertilizers they use and for them to monitor their groundwater.”

If it passes, the bill would cover agricultural land from Salinas down the coast to Ventura County, she said.

“We’re serious about looking for alternatives.”

Meanwhile, the bad blood over bad water between farmers and city folk continues to deepen in Dixon.

The finger-pointing over who is to blame for putting chloride into Dixon groundwater has been going for more than two decades, said Mary Ann Courville, who served as Dixon’s mayor until November 2008.

“Right now, we have a series of testing wells,” Courville said, referring to city-run groundwater tests for chloride content.

“And what we’re finding is that when we dig, the water is already contaminated from the farmland around us.”

“We are completely surrounded by agriculture,” Courville said. “We’re not the ones to blame, but they don’t care. They say it’s our problem.

“This has been an ongoing battle for years,” she added. “And they keep showing different levels of testing than we do.”

Ironically, some of the money used to pay the fine imposed by the water quality control board is coming from Dixon’s fund to expand its wastewater and treatment plant, she said.

“That didn’t make any sense to us.”

Concentrating the salts
Joe DiGiorgio is a supervising engineer for a firm of water-engineering consultants retained by the city of Dixon.

For more than 15 years, he and his firm, Eco Logic, have been gathering evidence to show how farming adversely affects the chloride content of the soil and groundwater.

“In our case, we’re concerned about groundwater,” he said. “Salts are building up in the groundwater, and most of it comes from agriculture.”

DiGiorgio explained how it works.

“Farmers put water on their crops, and even if they don’t add anything else, the result will be chloride,” he said. “The crops take out three-quarters of the water — through their leaves, the fruit, some by evaporation — what’s left is water concentrated by a factor of four.

“Basically, the pure water is taken in by the leaves, goes into the air, and what’s left are the salts: chloride,” DiGiorgio explained.

“If you’re taking water away, the end result is chloride,” he said. “So, the farmers are saying they’re adding nothing; but if you’re taking away water, you’re leaving a solution where the concentration of minerals is higher.”

So, why is this chloride problem such a big problem now?

Because we in California are in the middle of a protracted multiyear drought.

In a regular growing season, with regular amounts of rainfall, the chloride that collects in the ground is washed away and diluted.

No one would be talking about chloride if it rained every day, or every other day, or probably even if it rained regularly.

But that is not the case.

In June 2008, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a statewide drought.

It’s still in effect.

“It’s a conundrum,” DiGiorgio said. “By the very use of water, it will concentrate salt levels.”

Looking for solutions
As Dixon seeks a way to stop salts ending up in its water table, the mayor and others are looking to the Santa Clarita Valley for a solution.

Just like Fillmore, Dixon is offering a rebate to entice homeowners to give up their salt-discharging water softeners. The city is drafting a bill to ultimately outlaw them.

In 2008, Santa Clarita Valley voters made history. They became the first community in the entire country to actually outlaw brine-discharging water softeners in homes.

Dixon city officials told The Signal they’ve been closely monitoring how Santa Clarita Valley handles its water issues, and how it tries to control chloride.

When 2008’s Measure S became law, it halted truck loads of salty chloride that would have been discharged from homes into the sewer system — after which wastewater is treated and dumped into the Santa Clara River.

As historic as the effort became, it wasn’t enough to bring down chloride levels to the maximum level set by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, which traditionally has enforced a limit of 100 milligrams of chloride for every liter of water.

That board is allowing the local sanitation district to temporarily discharge up to 117 milligrams per liter of chloride into the river with the understanding that it will build a $210 million salt-ridding reverse-osmosis plant by 2015.

Dixon is expected by the board to discharge no more than 108 mg/L after 2014.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the state board of health both say human beings can live comfortably with chloride levels in water that reach 250 mg/L, and can live just as comfortably for short periods with levels at 600 mg/L.

But Ventura County farmers downstream say their salt-sensitive strawberries and avocados can bear no more than 117 mg/L — a claim that some say has no scientific basis.

One man in Dixon is using science to try and change the minds of regional water board members by proving farmers are to blame, at least in part, for chloride ending up in the groundwater.

Data on farming
Royce W. Cunningham looks after the water in Dixon.

As his truck bounces through Dixon farmland, along the dry dirt roads torn up by tractor traffic, he points to a patchwork of creeks that swell every spring with snow melt from California’s coastal mountain range.

As he slows his truck to a stop, he leans out his window and motions to a ditch filled with brown water.

A web of well-maintained irrigation ditches to and from the creeks feeds crops of tomatoes, corn and alfalfa all around the town.

As city engineer, Cunningham has been in the front seat of all the back-and-forth discussions with the regional water board over chloride.

“Our annual wastewater operating budget is $1.2 million. So, when we get a fine of $220,000 — it’s a huge hit. A huge hit, and it hurt a lot,” he said.

Cunningham turns his truck down another dirt road and stops. On the driver’s side is a house-high stack of hay; on the
other side is a cluster of beehives.

He steps from the truck and walks over to a spot by the road.

“This is all part of our plan,” he says, kneeling down and pointing to a manhole cover the size of a dinner plate.

He and his engineering staff hope the chloride levels monitored at five rural wells will prove to the regional water board that agriculture is to blame, either largely or in part, for putting chloride into the groundwater.

By presenting hard proof that Dixon town folk are not to blame for chloride in water, and by showing the board that chloride is being reduced with a town ordinance to stop brine-discharging water softeners from being installed in homes,

Cunningham hopes the town won’t have to build a costly reverse-osmosis plant.

Anticipating that his scientific data may “fall on deaf ears,” however, Cunningham is anticipating a need for a reverse-osmosis plant, a cost he pegs at about $60 million. 

“There’s going to come a day when you have to fish or cut bait,” he said. “You either build a reverse-osmosis plant or you don’t.” Although optimistic about presenting the data from his farm wells to the board, Cunningham can’t shake the bad aftertaste from recent talks about bad water and big fines.

“We tried to negotiate with the board,” he said. “And proposed instead of paying $220,000, that we would put that money into a wastewater-treatment plant. They said ‘No.’ So, we wrote them a check.”

“That was pretty hard to swallow,” he said.

“I understand their goal — noone wants the state to die because of salt in the soil, the economic impacts of all that — I understand all that. But to come down on communities and businesses with what I believe are very Draconian policies — that’s another way to drive people broke.”

Next in the series: The Signal looks at future options and solutions regarding high chloride concentrations in water.


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