Water Tax Decision Postponed
The two Santa Clarita City Council members who represent our area refused to buckle under pressure from the Los Angeles County Sanitation District to approve a tax increase that would have tripled the monthly cost to homeowners. The third member of the deciding committee, County Supervisor Don Knabe, did not attend Tuesday’s public hearing.
The new tax was proposed to finance a $250 million desalination plant for effluent pumped into the Santa Clara River that would allegedly protect agricultural interests downriver.
Mayor Frank Ferry and Councilmember Laurene Weste listened to just over an hour of testimony before reading a long list of questions to Sanitation District General Manager Stephen Maguin and asking him to set another meeting.
With the passage of Prop. S by the voters in November 2008, the area moved toward removing a major source of salt in the river by agreeing to eliminate sodium water softeners. Of the 6,000 softeners in operation in November, Maguin said that 4,500 have already been removed and another 1,500 should be out by the June 30 deadline.
This action has reduced the project cost by $75,000,000.
The proposal was to progressively raise the service charge rate for a single family home from $14.92 a month to $17.92 in 2010, $21.50 in 2011 and $25.75 in 2012. The vote before the committee Tuesday was to approve the first three raises, then come back and get approval for future costs when they had a better idea of final costs.
“We’ve received a lot of letters and e-mails and calls,” Weste said before the public comment began. “We are on a river that is under the federal Clean Water Act. The habitat created by effluent water is clean enough to drink, but this isn’t about water being safe to drink, it’s about salt.”
“I have a lot of concerns whether we have done everything we can to deal with this,” she continued. “What are the potential daily fines? The Regional Water Board members are appointed by the governor, they are not elected. I am concerned that this is not a well thought-out plan”
According to Maguin, the county received 199 protests (42 letters, one of them bearing 12 signatures, 150 e-mails and 7 phone calls). Ferry handed a stack of 200 e-mails to the sanitation board’s secretary, who was proctoring the meeting.
Samuel Unger, the Assistant Executive Director of the Water Quality Control Board (which establishes the standards) spoke in support of the resolution, noting that “Santa Clarita residents have enjoyed low rates for decades, which have come at a cost of higher salt levels which have costs to habitat and agricultural interests downstream.
The next speaker, Ed Dunn, protested the lack of timing of Unger’s speech, saying that enforcing a three-minute limit on following speakers would be a violation of the Brown Act. Dunn, a local water board member, said that there were two fundamental problems with the proposal: that there are no contracts between the State Water Project and water companies in the Santa Clarita Valley and the principle that if the state mandates a program, the state is mandated to fund the program.
Canyon Country Advisory Committee Chairman Alan Ferdman said that the sanitation district’s presentation of the rate increases in two parts was simply deception on their part.
“None of us are naïve enough to believe if the first half passes, the second will not be far behind. This is the largest single tax increase in Santa Clarita’s history. It provides a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.”
“It’s an ill-conceived plan proposed at the worst economic time,” he continued. “Vote no, send a message that we demand a more comprehensive plan and will not tolerate arbitrary compliance.”
John Brooks, who works for a water softener company, said that there are other systems and proposals that could work better to take care of the problem.
The problem is that water coming in to Santa Clarita from the State Water Project is already too densely salinated, but Santa Clarita is being asked to foot the bill to purify the water before it goes to Ventura County. Speakers quickly agreed that a plant that would desalinate the water where it arrives instead of at the exit point would be much more acceptable to the public.
Other speakers suggested that the Water Quality Board be eliminated in the next round of budget cuts to help California get back on its financial feet.
“We’re being asked to remove salt to a higher standard than what we are drinking,” one speaker pointed out.
Jackie Bick, representing State Senator George Runner, said that her boss felt he was not dealt with truthfully by the Water Board, as he was told removing the water softeners would solve the problem. He authored the legislation behind Prop. S.
“He recommends a no vote on this measure,” she added.
- At 5:05, the public comment was over and Weste started reading a long list of questions to Maguin.
- What are the fines?
- What is the criteria from the federal and state EPA?
- Does it matter what crops are affected?
- Are there Special District dollars that can be taken away?
- When does the cost of this go away – after the plant is built?
- Is Pitchess (Detention Center, a County facility) included in this assessment and what is their impact?
- Is there an impact past Piru?
- Are farmers downstream part of the State Water Project?
- If they are all on wells, are they over-pumping their wells (which would raise salt level)?
- Are we treating water used for landscaping?
- If Newhall Ranch is built, do they have to build their own plant?
- Can putting technology on homes solve the problem?
- What is the concentration of chlorides allowed in other communities?
- Are we the only ones going through this in California?
- Is the policy that the state can send it to you any way they want, but you have to treat it before it goes on?
- Are homeowners only 20 percent contributors?
- What are impacts by farmers from what they do?
- Do farmers have to treat their water to remove chemicals?
- What is the impact (long term) of salt water injection? We have an aquifer, we want to make sure we don't end up with another major cleanup because somebody thought it was OK in 2009.
- What will our rates return to?
Ferry then added his comments…and questions.
“For years, I pushed the water softener removal because we didn't want this big bill, then it became the Delta water. We believed the softeners would solve the problem.”
Has any sanitation district legally challenged their (state water board) numbers?
I’d like the City Attorney to tell me, is there a true causation issue - when you have state water coming in at one level and then you have to lean it up? It just doesn’t pass the smell test.
What are our legislative possibilities?
Ferry also asked if he and Councilwoman Weste and Supervisor Knabe could recirculate the notice of the rate increase in a clearer, more basic form, especially now that the public was in a “heightened awareness” state.
Both Ferry and Weste were unhappy that the state sold them on water softener removal. “We did this huge campaign,” Ferry said. “Five councilmembers sold the public on getting rid of their water softeners to help the cause and now we’re tripling the rate AND taken their water softeners.”
“I don't believe we've explored all our options yet,” Weste added. “Ventura County farmers are getting better water, free of charge, than we received. This has an unreasonable impact on residents. We care about our river, that's important, but I cannot support this large increase now.
“We’re not in a hurry to raise our taxes,” Ferry said. “We as council members, causation issues are very real for us. Elsmere, Cemex, we have a strong threshold of ability to pursue litigation. We enjoy being the first to test something. Go back to the Regional Board. We will push, if it doesn't seem just or fair; if it doesn’t pass the smell test, we don’t mind pushing the issue.
Later Tuesday evening, at the City Council's regular meeting, a separate fee involving stormwater assessments was shot down. Learn more about this developing story by clicking here.