Chloride Cleanup Hits Another Snag

Friday, June 24, 2016

[This opinion editorial was originally published in the Santa Clarita Valley Signal - click here to read it on the SCV Gazette & Free Classifieds' website.]

The residents of Santa Clarita recently learned of another setback in the chloride saga, as the Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District (SCVSD) ran into trouble with their four-year chloride reduction plan.

Judge James C. Calfant ruled against the SCVSD, maintaining he would like district officials to further explain how they plan to protect the endangered species of fish: the unarmored threespine stickleback.

In the suit, a group called the Affordable Clean Water Alliance challenged the environmental studies the SCVSD used to support its original chloride plan.

Judge Calfant ordered the SCVSD to halt the chloride reduction project, and instead complete another environmental analysis on the use of recycled water and its effects on the fish.

Ultimately, the SCVSD were told to return when their environmental impact report (EIR) complied with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

I have always been a proponent of the environment: efforts to protect our planet, including CEQA, are good things. We all care about clean water, air, and food, as well as ensuring California's natural resources are not pillaged out of existence.

However, we must tread lightly and not abuse CEQA for its intended purpose – to protect our natural resources and the beauty our state has to offer.

My fear is CEQA is being mistreated by those who don't approve of the work being done by SCVSD. As a consequence, the SCVSD might be unable to meet its state-mandated completion date of July 2019, which would mean hefty fines will be passed on to Santa Clarita Valley property owners via property taxes.

In 2002 the SCVSD, who provide roughly 250,000 residents with wastewater management, learned that the Santa Clara River's chloride (salt) level was too high and was allegedly causing downstream damage to avocado and strawberry crops in Ventura County.

Under the Federal Clean Water Act and the state's Porter Cologne Act, the Los Angeles Resion Water Quality Control Board is the regulator responsible for protecting the Santa Clara River and its uses. When chloride levels surpass a certain quality limit, California regulators impose restrictions called Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) to certify the objectives are met.

Though there was no scientific evidence avocadoes and strawberries were being damaged, the Regional Water Quality Control Board mandated chloride levels in the Santa Clara River be reduced.

Arbitrarily, the regional board set the chloride reduction to 100 mg/L, even though Calleguas Creek in Ventura County is set at 150mg/L and runs through identical crops.

I digress…

The SCVSD's two existing wastewater treatment plants are not designed to remove chloride. To lower chloride levels to the limits set by the state to avoid fines and the loss of local control, the sanitation district was given four years to build a treatment facility.

Since then, the SCVSD has entertained numerous options, even attempting to reduce the chloride level by drilling and storing brine below the communities of Westridge and Stevenson Ranch. Unfortunately, neither the public nor its community leaders had information concerning the plan.

It was then discovered the SCVSD held regular and special meetings in Whittier – approximately 50 miles from Santa Clarita City Hall. This discouraged public access and left residents in the dark on decisions affecting their pocketbooks.

In response, I introduced and Governor Brown signed Assembly Bill 951, which requires the SCVSD to hold all meetings within the boundaries of the district when policy decisions are being made related to a TMDL of pollutant levels. This is important, as there are 300 compounds that have regulated levels. This issue was bound to happen again.

I will continue to go to bat for our community and monitor the ongoing chloride project. It is in the best interest of everyone to get this right and meet the rigorous benchmarks set by the Regional Board.

However, this recent court ruling sets the SCVSD back another step, threatening the possibility of the district being able to meet the state-mandated chloride limit and avoid penalties that we all, the Santa Clarita Valley ratepayers, would have to pay.