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Sanitation District Proposes Rate Hikes To Handle Chloride Issue

khts_waterfaucetOne of the more controversial items on the Santa Clarita City Council agenda last night was the consideration of increased fees being levied on property owners over the next four years for wastewater discharge and sewage treatment.

The Council received a report from the Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District, which controls the regional wastewater system, including the Saugus and Valencia water reclamation plants which discharge into the Santa Clara River.

Of issue: chloride. Right now the limit imposed by the federal Clean Water Act is 100 mg/liter. Santa Clarita’s water is at 117, measured where pipes go from Los Angeles County into Ventura County.

Santa Clarita voters approved a measure to remove water softeners, the biggest dumper of salt into the ground water, in 2008. Softeners were taken away, rebates were handed out. The chloride level dropped much closer to acceptable, but that still wasn’t enough.

Despite a high level of chloride received by Santa Clarita in water piped from the State Water Project, our community is being held responsible for the incremental bump over an arbitrary limit imposed by the Regional Water Quality Board.

Problem? That bump could cost Santa Clarita $20 million a day in fines from the Regional authorities.

“It’s another unfunded mandate,” said Mayor Laurene Weste, who serves on the local Sanitation District board with Mayor Pro Tem Marsha McLean. “What’s happening here isn’t rational.”

Weste said that during the “bad years,” chloride levels soared close to 200 mg./l and tent to rise during drought and summer seasons. Removing the softeners made a big difference in that number, but output levels depend on more than just groundwater chloride levels. Water coming from the State Water Project in the Sacramento Delta comes in below the suggested levels in good times, but they are affected by drought just like any other region, sending water with higher chloride levels to Santa Clarita, which then has to process the water to remove the salt.

Project opponents contend that Santa Clarita has done what it could by eliminating salt-based water softeners in 2008, paying people to remove them from their homes. They also point to the salination levels of water received from the State Water Project, which arrives at Santa Clarita at an unacceptable level of 140 mg./l. (The federal standard, set by the Clean Water Act, is 100 mg./l.

Lobbying by agricultural interests in Ventura County, particularly farmers who grow strawberries and avocados, are in the sights of rate increase opponents. Ventura County cities (Fillmore, Piru, Santa Paula) along the 126 corridor have not removed water softeners, yet they complain about the chlorides in water channeled through Santa Clarita from the State Water Project. The farmers contend that high chloride adversely affects their crops, a condition for which no one can provide scientific backing.

According to the Sanitation District report, recommendations to fix the problem of high chloride levels coming from the Sacramento Delta rely on construction of the long-proposed peripheral canal for which there is no current financing or guarantee that the problem would be solved with its completion.

After a contentious meeting in 2009, the District’s board appealed to regulators (the Regional Water Board, a panel of appointees at the state level) to modify the chloride standard during drought conditions and ease up on implementing any mitigation efforts by extending the deadlines.

The Sanitation District Board will convene in the Council Chambers at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 2 to vote on the rates and implementation dates. Weste and McLean are the district representatives, along with Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich; Councilmember Bob Kellar is an alternate representative from City Council.

“The presentation at the (Council) meeting was just to give guidance to the Sanitation District representatives,” said city spokeswoman Gail Ortiz. “That meeting is to approve sending out notices of the potential increase.”

A large, vocal turnout is expected at the June 2 meeting. Sanitation District General Manager Stephen Maguin told the Council Tuesday night that the rate increase would not be voted on until at least July.

The proposed rate increases are incremental. Currently, single-family homeowners pay $16.58 per month. Proposed increases would take that figure to $18.50 this year, $20.50 in 2011, $22.58 in 2012 and $24.67 in 2013.

The district is proposing smaller increases than it did last year, explaining that the increases are meant to cover costs of operating existing facilities and a watershed-based alternative approach to reduce chloride levels in the river.

“The total rate increase proposed over the four years is $8.09 per month, where approximately half of the increase is for the management and operation of existing facilities and programs and the other half is to support the program to control chlorides,” the district wrote in the report.

The rate increases don’t necessarily stop there, however.

”Should the Sanitation District’s Board elect to implement the recommended rate package, during the fourth year future rate increases will be proposed based on the selected project’s construction estimates, financing costs and estimated operational costs,” the report says. “Based on our best estimates for the revised Alternative Compliance Plan, the service charge rate projections indicate that rates must steadily increase over the next thirteen-year period to approximately $49 per sewage unit per month in fiscal year 2022-23.”

The June 2 meeting is open to the public.