By Andrew Warnes
During the general elections of 2008, the citizens of California were focused upon the presidential contest between Barack Obama and John McCain. In the Santa Clarita Valley north of Los Angeles, voters were also choosing who would serve on their local school boards, and whether they should support the removal of residential water softeners to minimize future water bill charges. When the results came in the next day, they had voted 49 to 48 percent in favor of Barack Obama and 64 to 36 percent to support the removal of water softeners.
Few residents likely realized at the time what the implications of the water softener ban would be for Santa Clarita or for California. Voters are unlikely to receive the utility cost savings they expected and they may have delivered a critical blow to a California technology and manufacturing industry that once blazed the trail for the rest of the world. The reasons why Santa Clarita was asked to vote on the removal of residential water softeners have gradually developed over several decades and are extremely complex. This article will attempt to explain these issues for readers who are not intimately familiar with the history or the science behind it.
California—cradle of modern water technology
The factors that make California such a desirable place to live and work also made the state a leader in water collection, planning and treatment. An arid but pleasant and sunny climate, proximity to the Pacific Ocean, fertile farmland requiring irrigation, an expanding population, incredible wealth, entrepreneur- ial spirit, and a large piece of the post World War II military/ industrial complex (and all of the technical talent spun off from it) conspired to make California the place where modern water technologies flourished. Massive public works projects brought water into the cities and high-tech industries developed to take advantage of it. Engineers at UCLA invented the cellulose acetate membrane precursor in 1959, and the world’s first commercial reverse osmosis plant went into operation in Coalinga in 1965 (a 6,000-gpd brackish water system). In Long Beach, the technology that made light-weight fuel cells for rockets and torpedoes was realigned to create fiber-wound water tanks that were lighter and stronger than steel. Huge municipal processes for water treatment were scaled down and miniaturized by small entrepreneurs in towns like Tustin, Riverside and Encino. Processors and PLCs flowed by the millions from Silicon Valley to meter, measure and
control water. Advanced filtration and fluid handling technologies made expansion possible in the Napa and Sonoma wine industries. Groundbreaking pump designs were engineered in Torrance, and assembly lines grew up in the Inland Empire to meet the needs of aerospace firms, automobile manufacturers, pool equipment builders, and countless other spin-off enterprises throughout the state. California led the world with the creation, development and commercialization of water technologies, but the industry’s center of gravity has been slowly shifting away.
By 2008, the vitality of the water treatment industry in California was already threatened by a recession, offshore competition and the increased costs of doing business in the state, before the voters of the Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District chose to support water softener removals. Liability, insurance and regulatory costs had gradually increased over time to bring the industry to a tipping point beyond which an exodus of talent and capital from the state would occur. Santa Clarita could represent that point-of-no-return for water technology in California if regulators and industry were unable to bring their talents together to tackle the water issues facing the state.
Why Santa Clarita? Why now?
The origins of the current situation are too complex to fully document here, but have their genesis in a unique set of circumstances and regulatory scenarios. In some ways, the story of Santa Clarita is a good story to explain the potential for unintended consequences despite the best available science and the best intentions of all involved.
By most standards, Santa Clarita and the surrounding areas are an excellent place to live and raise a family. Santa Clarita is located just north of the San Fernando Valley, 30 miles from downtown Los Angeles and 40 miles east of the Pacific Ocean. Santa Clarita is the fourth largest city in Los Angeles County, with a population of 177,158 in January 2007, and the 24th largest city in the state. In Los Angeles County, only Los Angeles (with a population of 4.0 million), Long Beach (with less than 493,000) and Glendale (with slightly over 207,000) were larger than Santa Clarita. Consequently, Santa Clarita plays an important role in the county based on its size. It’s schools consistently rank in the state’s top 10 percent, and it is the safest city of its size in the US, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Santa Clarita has the lowest unemployment rate in Los Angeles County among cities with populations over 100,000 and, in 2008, average household income was $101,679.
For collection and treatment of wastewater, Santa Clarita is part of the Sanitation District of Los Angeles County, which functions on a regional scale and consists of 24 independent special districts serving about 5.7 million people. The Santa Clarita Valley Sanitary District is a smaller wastewater entity within the district, which has an overall 2009-10 budget for wastewater management of $796 million.
There are currently two wastewater reclamation plants in the Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District—The Saugus Water Reclamation Plant (WRP) first opened in July 1962, and the Valencia Water Reclamation Plant (WRP) opened in 1967. Today the Saugus WRP provides primary, secondary and tertiary treatment for seven million gallons of wastewater per day, and has no facilities for solids processing. All wastewater solids are conveyed by trunk sewers to Valencia WRP for treatment. It provides primary, secondary, and tertiary treatment for 21.6 million gallons of wastewater per day. Wastewater solids are anaerobically digested, stored and then dewatered using plate-and-frame filter presses. The dewatered cake (or biosolids) is hauled away for agricultural land application. Methane gas is produced during the digestion process and is utilized by a co-generation process that heats water and produces electricity. Reclaimed water is released from both plants into the Santa Clara River.
The Santa Clara River flows approximately 100 miles from its headwaters near Acton to the Pacific Ocean, and is one of only two remaining river systems in the region that exist in their natural state and are not channelized by concrete. The Upper Santa Clara Watershed, located in Los Angeles County, is developed and contains the city of Santa Clarita. The Lower Santa Clara Watershed passes through undeveloped or agricultural Ventura County.
Much of the political and financial wrangling that has occurred in the Santa Clarita Valley Sanitary District centers upon the mandatory discharge limits imposed upon the district by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board. Chloride discharge levels, as well as levels of other contaminants, are at the root of the controversy. Water for the Santa Clarita Valley generally comes from groundwater or from the Castaic Lake Water Agency (CLWA). CLWA supplements local groundwater supplies with State Water Project water from northern California, treats the water, and then delivers it to the Santa Clarita Valley’s four local water purveyors (Los Angeles County Waterworks District #36, Newhall County Waterworks District, Santa Clarita Water Division and Valencia Water Company). The wastewater is collected by the Sanitary District, passes through the Saugus and Valencia WRP’s, and is then released into the Santa Clara River Watershed. Regardless of the quality of incoming water delivered from northern California via the State Water Project; regardless of the quality of groundwater that fluctuates depending upon drought and other factors; and regardless of urban growth and other factors the Sanitary District must meet chloride discharge limits imposed upon it by adopting new technologies or paying heavy financial penalties. Agricultural interests and other lobbying groups downstream in Ventura County are very alert to any violations that could negatively impact chloride-sensitive crops like avocadoes. Santa Clarita and its planners have been placed in the very sensitive position of having to balance mandatory discharge limits and the interests of vigilant neighbors with their own financial ability to pay fines or upgrade treatment facilities. At present, neither Saugus or Valencia can reduce chlorides with the technologies in place today.
Regulators in Santa Clarita were extremely diligent in exploring and developing strategies for reducing their chloride dis- charge. Care was taken to coordinate activities with surrounding authorities, bring in outside experts to analyze the situation, and consider many alternative options. Because of the complexities of groundwater flows, treatment processes and variations in incoming water quality, sampling was done in great detail both before and after wastewater reclamation at Saugus and Valencia—as well as downstream in Ventura County. Courses of action were developed and studied in minute detail. Unfortunately, the due diligence of the study phase appears to have not carried over into the execution phase. This seems to be the cause for most of the discomfort the Santa Clarita Sanitary District and municipal management are experiencing today.
On June 3, 2008, the final draft of an Alternative Water Resources Management plan (AWRM) was presented to the Upper Santa Clara River Chloride TMDL Study Project Team, in which several scenarios were presented. The first was a do-nothing scenario, which was unacceptable because the sanitary district had to meet a 100 mg/L discharge limit. The second was construction of a dedicated brine line and release facilities to the Pacific Ocean, which was prohibitively expensive. The third was the AWRM, which involved microfiltration and RO technology to reduce chloride and other discharges, as well as the use of UV disinfection technology to reduce chlorination and other chemical usage. AWRM was eventually selected and became part of the MOU signed by the various interested parties on December 11, 2008.
Despite detailed and longstanding investigations going into the adoption of AWRM, for which the eventual costs should not have been a surprise to any of the regulators involved, a parallel effort to reduce chloride discharge by removing residential water softeners was also being developed. Studies had estimated there were approximately 3,000 residential water softeners adding chlorides (brine) into the Santa Clarita Valley watershed, and that during several years of removals before 2008, enough chloride discharge had been reduced to merit a mandatory removal of the remaining 1,500 or so systems.
Significant debate has surrounded the calculations of exactly how much chloride discharge is generated by each potential source. Unfortunately, chloride discharge reductions cited as justification for mandatory removals appears to have coincided with a time period in which the conductivity levels measured in the outflow of the Castaic Lake water supply were reduced and drought was somewhat less severe (March 2004 to July 2007). Al- though analytical justifications for mandatory removals may need further analysis, the legal framework for a vote on removals was pursued. State Senator George Runner was engaged to propose legislation facilitating the mandatory removals, despite the fact that development of the AWRM was ongoing. Senator Runner later publicaly commented that he was subject to a bait-and- switch effort because he had been led to believe that the softener removals were the only way to reduce discharge levels and avoid increased utility costs. Despite election results and mandatory removals, utility rates are proposed to increase from $15 to $47 per month from 2008 through 2015. Both the senator and the public now sense that mandatory softener removals were pointless, that they never could have helped meet chloride discharge limits, and that perhaps they were misled by district officials.
What could have been done better?
Although the Santa Clarita Valley Sanitary District does not seem to have promised residents that they would be able to avoid any rate increases in the future by voting for water softener removals, their press releases and public communications were not entirely clear that AWRM was still going to raise utility rates significantly. AWRM impacts upon Ventura County were finalized in June 2008 and the final MOU was signed on December 11, 2008. The push to reduce water softener installations began in 2004 and culminated in the vote of November 2008. Senator Runner and members of the public may have received four years of build-up and promotion leading to the vote, only to discover the true cost of the AWRM after the election.
Perhaps the largest missed opportunity during the Santa Clarita mandatory removal process was that the California water technology industry and regulators could have partnered to benefit all parties. The manufacturers of residential and commercial water softeners have increased the efficiencies of their products significantly since 2004, and have expressed willingness to partner with California to jointly develop chloride efficiency standards for all existing and future residential and commercial systems in order to address the discharge issue without enacting forced removals. Homeowners who prefer softened water and industries that require it should be able to benefit from an EnergyStar or WaterSense type framework developed within a public/private partnership.
It benefits California economically, environmentally and from a regulatory standpoint to develop a partnership with its own home-grown water technology industry. Without the financial incentive to stay in California and benefit from supplying high-volume residential and commercial water treatment systems, the industry might seek greener pastures in other states and countries. Both Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Singapore have made significant investments in water cluster creation; both have lured manufacturing, development and research away from California and hope to do more of the same in the future. Both see water technology as a multi-billion dollar growth industry worthy of legislative support and cooperation.
The answer to the chloride discharge issue and other contaminant issues can be found in a public/private partnership between manufacturers, utilities and regulators. With the proper incentives, the water technology industry can stay strong in California and continue to generate billions of dollars in revenue while meeting the needs of the sanitary districts and consumers. The alternative is continued wrangling, disillusioned consumers and the migration of a world-beating industry from California to other opportunities.
- Francisco Guerrero. Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District. www.ladpw.org/wmd/scr/docs/SCVSD%20USCR%20IRWMP%20Projects.pdf
- Milwaukee 7 Water Briefing Update. September 22, 2009. www.milwaukee7-watercouncil.com/…/water-briefing-document-09-25-09.pdf
- Los Angeles Daily News. November 7, 2003. www.thefreelibrary.com/SANTA+CLARITA +MUST+CUT+CHLORIDE+WASTEWATER+ PLANTS+GET+NEEDED+PERMITS-a0109920478
- UCLA, Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science. www.engineer.ucla.edu/history/osmosis.html
- Upper Santa Clara River Chloride TMDL Study Project Team, Minutes. January 8, 2008. www.vcawqc.org/documents/jan08-meeting.doc
- Los Angeles Daily News. August 20, 2006. www.thefreelibrary.com/SALT+LEVELS+TO+BE+LOWER+BY+2016+FARMERS+ENCOURAG ED+BY+RIVER+DEADLINE.-a0149873952
- Pacific Water Quality Association. May 15, 2009. www.pwqa.org/index.php?src=news&srctype=detail&category=News&refno=27
- Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts Websites: www.lacsd.org/info/industrial_waste/chloride_in_santa_clarita/default.asp; www.lacsd.org/about/wastewater_facilities/default.asp#Santa; www.lacsd. org/info/industrial_waste/chloride_in_santa_clarita/sources_of_chlo- ride.asp; www.lacsd.org/info/water_reuse/refy0607/default.asp
- United States Bureau of Reclamation. www.usbr.gov/lc/socal/planning.html
- Los Angeles Department of Public Works. www.ladpw.org/wmd/SCR/June2008_USC_IRWMP.pdf
- Ventura County Farm Bureau: www.farmbureauvc.com/pdf_forms/ USCR_Chloride_Staff_Report.pdf; www.farmbureauvc.com/pdf_forms/ AWRM_Presentation.pdf
- California State Water Resources Control Board. www.swrcb.ca.gov/board_decisions/adopted_orders/resolutions/2009/rs2009_0077.pdf
- Chloride TMDL Collaborative Documents post. www.santaclarariver. org/Content/10006/process.html
- City of Santa Clarita: www.santa-clarita.com/cityhall/cmo/press/release.asp?ID=790; www.santa-clarita.com/cityhall/cd/ed/econom- ic_development/index.asp
About the author
Andrew Warnes, Senior Channel Manager for PRF (a GE/Pentair JV), received a BS Degree in national security policy studies from Ohio State University, and is a former US Army Special Operations Team Chief. His areas of expertise include membrane applications for micro-biological purification and regulatory compliance. Warnes is a former International Director of the Water Quality Association and in 2002 received the WQA Award of Merit for his work representing the water treatment industry in European Union standards development. He can be reached at [email protected] or (847) 274-0595.