[KHTS] The Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District governing board voted 3-0 to adopt a chloride plan expected to gradually increase the fees for district ratepayers.
The move came after a pair of lengthy public hearings, hours of public comment and discussion and the withdrawal of support for a collaborative alternative by Ventura County interests.
Sanitation District staffers initially recommended the board adopt a phased plan to lower the chloride level in water sent downstream from the Santa Clara River watershed, however that plan was nixed when Ventura County interests indicated they would not support an adjustment of the state’s mandated chloride limit.
The state’s Regional Water Quality Control Board set a deadline of Oct. 31 for the Sanitation District to approve a plan that would lower the chloride level in water treated at two local plants, one in Valencia and another in Saugus.
The chloride deadline
If the Sanitation District failed to meet the deadline, ratepayers would not only bear the brunt of fines from the state, but also would be ultimately compelled to pay the cost of compliance, said Sam Unger, executive director for the Regional Water Quality Control Board.
The meeting started with a presentation responding to criticism and questions regarding the district staff’s recommendation, including why the recommendation had changed from the roundly criticized Alternative 4 to Alternative 2.
One of the commonly heard complaints was that the district should sue, including claims by the Clean Water Alliance, which assailed the research behind the district staff’s report on the four chloride options for the governing board.
“There are a lot of good reasons on why we shouldn’t litigate,” said Nicole Granquist, special counsel for the Sanitation District, specializing in water and environmental litigation.
“The probability of success is very low and there has never been a successful challenge of (the state’s) TMDL,” Granquist said. “When you couple (the probability of success) with expense, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
Public comment included various Santa Clarita Valley public officials who seemed to share the feeling that, while spending millions on chloride treatment wasn’t necessarily palatable, it was preferred over millions in fines on top of having to pay for chloride treatment.
The Sanitation District was given the Oct. 31 deadline as part of a fine settlement for previously missing a deadline to come up with a compliance plan.
The district was fined $280,000 last year, which district officials negotiated down to $225,000 on the condition that a chloride treatment plan be approved by the end of the month.
At one point in the meeting, Santa Clarita Mayor Bob Kellar, who’s on the Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District’s governing board, along with Santa Clarita City Councilwoman Laurene Weste and Supervisor Michael Antonovich, asked Unger to put the fines the district would be facing if they opted not to comply with the chloride plan.
Unger said a fair characterization would be to describe the $225,000 as “a drop in the bucket” compared to what could happen if the district chose to remain out of compliance.
Unger further went on to say the fines could tally $10,000 each day of noncompliance, dating back to last year, in addition to $10 per gallon for each of the 20 million gallons the district treats each day, although he prefaced that by saying the district has never levied a maximum fine.
Water treatment costs
Based on the recommendations of staff and a lack of viable alternatives, the Sanitation District’s governing board OK’ed Alternative 2, which would be deep-well injection costing $130 million and expected to gradually raise rates and connection fees.
“For a typically sized 3,000 square foot restaurant, there will be a 27 percent increase (in connection fees),” said Phil Friess, chair of the Sanitation District’s Technical Services Department, “with that increase slowly phased in from 2019 to 2039.”
When the plan is phased in, the connection cost is expected to increase by $4,134 in 2019, and then gradually go up until it reaches $140,565 in 2039.
New business won’t see a difference in the one-time cost for connection fees until the plan comes online because those costs are associated with operations and maintenance, said Dave Bruns, assistant department head for financial management.
The construction is expected to be online by the fiscal year 2019, according to estimates from district staff.
However, the average ratepayer should expect to see a cost much sooner, which could happen as early as next year, Bruns said, if the Sanitation District governing board approves staff members’ current plan.
“We’ll do that to pay for part of the project out of cash, which would lower the amount that we would have to finance,” Bruns said. “It lowers that cost.”
The increase, again, if approved, would start at about $30 to $32 a year more than what ratepayers now pay each year.
“Pretty much the numbers that we had run would go in a straight line,” Bruns said, adding “to the degree that we can get any state or federal funding, that’s going to lower that number.”
The current rate for Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District ratepayers is $247, if they use the average amount of water for a single-family home. For a condominium owner, that rate is $203, and the increases are also slightly less.
The total cost for ratepayers is expected to bring their total annual bill to $410.
Is the chloride-water fight over?
During Monday’s two-hour meeting, Sanitation District officials said they had exhausted all of their options in regard to working with Ventura County for a lower chloride limit.
It was only because the district had run out of time and support from downstream users that staffers recommended Alternative 2, Friess said.
E. Michael Solomon, general manager for the United Water Conservation District, a representative for the Ventura County water users who were mentioned repeatedly Monday, expressed exasperation with Santa Clarita Valley interests over their inability to reach the state’s chloride level.
“Ventura County stakeholders have been trying to work with you and our staff for several years to try to identify a cost-effective means,” Solomon said. “We appreciate the diligence… we believe they negotiated in good faith.
“With that said, the (Sanitation District) has only made partial progress toward complying with its legal obligation to halt contamination of the Santa Clara River with excessive levels of chloride,” he said.
“Santa Clarita is still no closer to achieving the state-mandated goal than it was 10 years ago,” he added.
To that end, Assemblyman Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, spoke during the public comment portion to offer support for a legislative plan to limit the ability of state agencies to set “arbitrary” limits for contaminants such as chloride.
There’s also an administrative battle being fought by Sanitation District staffers who are looking to the state to fund what they are calling an unfunded mandate.
A hearing next year in front of the Commission on State Mandates would negate the cost to Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District ratepayers if they can successfully claim that the state is mandating the chloride limit without
An initial staff report doesn’t seem promising for the Sanitation District’s challenge. The report recommended denying the district’s claim.
“Essentially, the constitution requires the state to reimburse local governments for any state-mandated new program or higher level of service,” said Heather Halsey, executive director for the Commission on State Mandates. “And here, what staff has found is that the requirement is actually a reduced level of service compared to the previous (chloride allowance).”