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Year in Review: The year of chloride ends with no resolution

Year in Review: Proposed sewer rate hike remains unresolved, looms in the spring

Posted: December 25, 2010 10:20 p.m.
Updated: December 26, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Editor’s note: Third in an occasional series on major Santa Clarita Valley stories of 2010.

If 2010 left us with any sort of aftertaste, it could only be described as salty.

Chloride content in the Santa Clara River became one of the most hotly debated topics in 2010 when residents of the Santa Clarita Valley learned they might have to pay millions of dollars for a plant to remove the salty compound from the water.

In November 2008, Santa Clarita residents made history when they became the first city in the nation to approve a law making it illegal for anyone to have a brine-discharging water softener at home.

The unprecedented move was sparked, in part, by efforts to reduce the amount of chloride ending up in the Santa Clara River, which runs through the Santa Clarita Valley to the Pacific Ocean.

Santa Clarita Valley residents’ treated wastewater is dumped into the river.

So when a powerful, well-represented lobby of Ventura County farmers downstream accused Santa Clarita of contaminating river water with excessive amounts of chloride — harmful to moneymaking, salt-sensitive crops such as strawberries and avocados — the debate got ugly.

Downstream demands

The farmers — arguing that the Clean Water Act of 1972 was on their side and pointing to scientific data they said supports the need for low chloride levels — demanded Santa Clarita reduce chloride levels to 117 milligrams for every liter of river water.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the state board of health, however, say humans can live comfortably with chloride levels in water that reach 250 milligrams per liter, and for short periods of time with levels as high as 600 milligrams per liter.

Not so for their crops, the farmers said.

What inflamed the debate was a proposal that would hit SCV residents in their pocketbooks and potentially sink some high-water-using businesses: a proposal by the Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District to raise sewer rates to pay for a salt-removing reverse osmosis plant.

That plant carried initial planning costs of $210 million and, ultimately, a $500 million price tag.

In addition, some challenged the farmer lobby’s scientific findings, saying studies failed to establish the crops’ need for low chloride numbers.

Residents rally

On July 27, local residents gathered for an “information meeting” at City Hall to address the proposed rate hikes.
After much rancorous testimony, district board members postponed all discussion of the proposed rates until next spring.
The debate was far from over.

The Signal looked into the issue and found an old-fashioned water war brewing between those upstream and those downstream.

In the first of two five-part series investigating the impact of chloride in water, The Signal examined all sides of the dispute — interviewing farmers, legislators, water experts, sanitation officials and local homeowners no longer using water softeners.

Ventura County strawberry farmers, when interviewed, revealed that chloride was only a problem in times of drought.
Normally, regular levels of rainfall wash chloride from the soil and away from plants.

The investigation into chloride also revealed that the state water board began issuing an unprecedented number of fines against small towns — often in the millions of dollars — at a time when municipal governments are struggling with reduced revenue and legislative raids on their coffers.

Elected officials react
The Signal investigation shifted gears.
From chloride, water and drought, the investigation turned to the amount of money generated by the state in water fines.
The year of chloride closed out with local politicians taking a stand against hefty fines issued by the state.

By the end of summer, the controversy prompted two local politicians to respond.

On Aug. 27, Santa Clarita Valley Assemblyman Cameron Smyth announced he wants the regional water boards that issue “devastating fines” against small towns to be more accountable to the public, calling on an oversight body to see that it happens.

In a similar move, while attending a late September conference of the League of California Cities in San Diego, Santa Clarita City Councilwoman Marsha McLean called on her fellow city representatives to sign her resolution demanding, in part, that the state provide cities with adequate funding to pay for special regulatory fees such as water quality fines issued by the State Water Resources Control Board and its nine regional boards.

As Santa Clarita residents head into the new year, the problems persist — a 2016 deadline imposed by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board to reduce chloride levels looms, and the discussion over a proposed sewer rate hike, which was put off until spring, is now around the corner.


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