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Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District Chloride Compliance

MEETING STATE-MANDATED CHLORIDE (SALT) LIMITS IN THE SANTA CLARITA VALLEY

OVERVIEW

The Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District (SCV Sanitation District) has spent many years seeking the least costly, environmentally sound solution to meeting State mandates related to the levels of chloride (salt) in the Valley’s treated wastewater/sewage discharged to the Santa Clara River. In an effort to avoid steep State fines or loss of local control, the SCV Sanitation District conducted a local planning process to determine the most affordable way to upgrade the Valley's wastewater (sewage) treatment facilities to meet the State’s strict salt limits.  After an extensive public comment period, the Board of Directors of the SCV Sanitation District successfully avoided fines by unanimously approving a Chloride (Salt) Compliance Project on October 28, 2013.  The approved project consists of ultraviolet disinfection and microfiltration/reverse osmosis with brine disposal of the Valley’s wastewater.

In order to avoid further State fines and lower compliance project costs to the lowest achievable levels, the SCV Sanitation District must now approve wastewater service charge rates to fully fund the approved Chloride Compliance Project by July 2014.  While the approved project will allow the Santa Clarita Valley to meet the State-mandated chloride limit, the construction of the needed facilities cannot be completed by the current State deadline of May 2015.  Unless the State and Federal regulators agree to extend this deadline, the Valley will be in violation of the chloride limit in May 2015, and will again face State fines.  The SCV Sanitation District has requested an extension of the State’s construction deadline from 2015 to 2019 and changes to other State requirements intended to reduce the cost of the Chloride Compliance Project.  However, these changes can only be made if the Basin Plan for the Los Angeles Region is amended through a long process of hearings and State and Federal approvals.  Based on discussions with the California Regional Water Quality Control Board - Los Angeles Region (Regional Water Board), a schedule was developed to ensure amendment of the Basin Plan by May 2015 (see State and Federal Deadlines and Actions).  The July 2014 approval of service charge rates to fully fund the project is the next step in meeting the chloride compliance schedule.

If appropriate rates are not adopted, the Regional Water Board will stop the Basin Plan amendment process, and the May 2015 final compliance deadline will not be extended.  Since chloride compliance facilities cannot be constructed by the May 2015 deadline, the SCV Sanitation District, and ultimately property owners in the service area, will face steep and recurring fines.  Property owners would pay those fines for at least four years until the necessary chloride compliance facilities are constructed, and would also have to pay the cost of construction.  The financial consequences of not approving rates in July are far greater than the cost of moving forward with the construction and operation of the approved Chloride Compliance Project.

BACKGROUND

Who is the Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District

The SCV Sanitation District is a local agency that collects the wastewater from the Valley’s homes and businesses, including toilets, sinks, showers, and washing machines. The wastewater travels through sewer pipes to two sewage treatment plants, the Saugus and Valencia Water Reclamation Plants (WRPs), where it is cleaned and disinfected to produce high quality recycled water. The recycled water is returned to the environment through the Santa Clara River or provided to local water agencies for irrigating landscape, helping to keep the Valley green and beautiful. Property owners pay for their sewer services, including operating the sewage treatment plants, through a sewer service charge.

Who Regulates Us

In the United States, all environmental matters ultimately fall under the jurisdiction of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). As it pertains to sewage treatment and water pollution, EPA has delegated this authority to many of the states, including California. In California, this authority resides with the State Water Resources Control Board. To assist in the efficient operation of the State’s programs, California has been divided into nine regions. Each region has its own Regional Water Quality Control Board (Regional Water Board), made up of appointees by the Governor’s Office. Santa Clarita is located in Region 4, the Los Angeles Region.

Both the Saugus and Valencia WRPs discharge their recycled water to the Santa Clara River, which is designated as a water of the United States. Accordingly, each plant must have a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit issued by the Regional Water Board. This permit designates the limits of a wide variety of constituents that must be met before the recycled water can be discharged. Failure to comply with the terms of the permit can result in significant State and Federal fines.

The State-Mandated Chloride (Salt) Limit

The State is requiring the Valley to reduce the chloride (salt) levels in the treated wastewater discharged to the Santa Clara River and has set strict deadlines that the Valley must meet.  Salt levels in the Valley's treated sewage are above the State-mandated chloride limit because homeowners and businesses add salt to the Valley's sewage system every day through use of soaps, detergents and cleaning products. All of these contain high amounts of chloride, a form of salt.

For over 10 years, we’ve repeatedly and aggressively challenged the State’s chloride (salt) limit and deadlines. A detailed chronology of the actions we’ve taken to protect our ratepayers and the State’s rationale for the limit is provided under Key Events Timeline. Despite our best efforts, the State has rejected all of our challenges and affirmed the scientific studies used to set the chloride limit (see Summary of Scientific Review Process).  The State subsequently fined the Santa Clarita Valley $225,000 for failing to comply with the State-mandated chloride limit. This fine was paid by you, the ratepayers, through the existing service charge program.

Given the State’s position, one possible option would have been to file a lawsuit. We hired independent legal counsel who specializes in environmental law to evaluate the chances of success. Based on the court record, they determined that this kind of lawsuit has little to no chance of success, would be costly to ratepayers, would result in steep State fines, and would not eliminate the Valley’s obligation to comply with the State’s chloride limit. After careful consideration, it was determined that this course of action would pose a very high risk to our ratepayers (see Common Misconceptions About Litigation).

As a result, we undertook the preparation of a Chloride Compliance Facilities Plan and Environmental Impact Report (EIR) to evaluate possible alternatives for complying with the State’s mandate. This included extensive public outreach involving homeowner organizations, neighborhood councils, the business community, and other stakeholder groups. They offered invaluable input on different alternatives and financial impacts. Based on this input and following a lengthy public hearing, a project involving ultraviolet (UV) disinfection, microfiltration/reverse osmosis (MF/RO), and brine disposal by deep well injection was selected as the least expensive alternative that would comply with the State’s strict chloride mandate.

The Santa Clarita Valley Must Meet the State’s Requirements for Chloride (Salt) or Face Steep State Fines and Risk Losing Local Control

If the SCV Sanitation District does not meet the State-mandated requirements, the State can issue large fines every day that salt levels are above the State's legal limits. Additionally, the payment of fines does not remove the legal requirement for compliance. If the Santa Clarita Valley refuses to comply with the chloride limit, the State penalties can get even more expensive.

Fine amounts could reach many millions of dollars. In addition, if the Valley’s treatment plants are not upgraded, the State could take control away from the local SCV Sanitation District. Valley property owners would have to pay the fines until the sewage treatment plants were upgraded and would still have to pay the costs to upgrade the plants. This has already happened elsewhere in the State.

Examples of State Fines and Loss of Local Control

Since January of 2000, the State and Regional Water Boards have collected nearly $90 million in fines from violators. In the two Sanitation Districts that serve Lancaster and Palmdale, property owners ended up paying both the costs of upgrading their sewage treatment plants and $4.75 million dollars in State fines because they did not comply with the State's orders.

In the community of Los Osos in San Luis Obispo County, the State took control away from local authorities when property owners and local authorities refused to build a new community sewer system and treatment plant. The local Community Services District was fined $6.6 million, went into bankruptcy, and state legislation was passed that took authority for the project away from the local district.

The SCV Sanitation District Must Receive an Extension of State’s Construction Deadline and Changes to Other State Requirements

To comply with the State-mandated chloride (salt) limits for the Santa Clarita Valley and prevent further State fines that Valley property owners would have to pay, the SCV Sanitation District must receive an extension of the State’s construction deadline from 2015 to 2019 and changes to other State requirements related to chloride compliance. These changes can only be made if the Basin Plan for the Los Angeles Region is amended through a long process of hearings and State and Federal approvals.  Based on discussions with the California Regional Water Quality Control Board - Los Angeles Region (Regional Water Board), a schedule was developed to ensure amendment of the Basin Plan by May 2015 (see State and Federal Deadlines and Actions). The July 2014 approval of service rates to fully fund the project is the next step in meeting the chloride compliance schedule.

Litigation Could be Very Risky and Very Costly to Valley Property Owners and Would Not Eliminate the Obligation to Comply

A lawsuit challenging the State’s chloride limits would be very risky, would be very costly to Valley property owners, and would not eliminate the Valley’s obligation to comply with the State’s chloride limits. Based on the court record, legal challenges to water quality standards set by the State’s water regulatory agencies have rarely been successful and almost always result in the State regulators making technical changes and re-adopting the water quality standard.  Click here for more information.

Other Misconceptions about Complying with the State’s Chloride (Salt) Limits

In response to public comments, the SCV Sanitation District has responded to common misconceptions about complying with the State’s chloride (salt) limits for the Santa Clarita Valley. Click here for more information.

Local Planning and Public Involvement in the Selection of Chloride (Salt) Compliance Project

On April 24, 2013, the SCV Sanitation District released the proposed plans for public review and comment, and provided many opportunities for public input. The extended 90-day public comment period closed on July 24, 2013. A revised plan, including responses to all public input and recommendations, was released on October 10, 2013. The Board of Directors of the Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District unanimously agreed to certify the Final EIR and approve the Final Chloride Compliance Facilities Plan on October 28, 2013.

The SCV Sanitation District conducted a local planning process that encouraged community input. Four information meetings were held to provide an opportunity to learn more about the process and discuss the process with SCV Sanitation District staff. Over 25 presentations were given to local groups and organizations to discuss the alternatives and gather input. Four public hearings were held to receive official public comment. SCV Sanitation District staff also responded to numerous phone calls, e-mails and requests for information. These and other public outreach efforts led to the submission of 492 different comments from 114 separate individuals, community organizations, and government agencies.

Continued Public Engagement, Rate Setting, and the Proposition 218 Process

We will continue to keep you informed through the Proposition 218 rate setting process and, in conformance with direction given by the SCV Sanitation District’s Board of Directors, notices were mailed on May 12, 2014 to all property owners advising them of the need for the proposed rate increase along with the proposed rates, the service charge attributable to each individual parcel, the schedule for information meetings, and finally information with respect to a public hearing.  Before wastewater service charge rates are considered, the Board also directed staff to continue the extensive public engagement program for the Chloride Compliance effort.  As such, six information meetings have been scheduled.  Additionally, staff is available to meet with any other organizations that request a meeting.  The public hearing has been scheduled for June 30, 2014, at 6:00 p.m. at the Santa Clarita City Hall, Santa Clarita, California. (Click here Information Meetings and Public Hearing Schedule.)

Continued Efforts to Achieve Compliance at Lowest Cost

District staff is dedicated to achieving compliance with the chloride limit at the lowest cost possible.  Staff will continue to work with the Regional Water Board to effect changes to the Basin Plan that will minimize project costs.  In addition, staff is carefully evaluating potential State and Federal grant funding opportunities that might allow service charge rates to be reduced in future years.  Staff will continue design and permitting work to implement the Chloride Compliance Project.


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For further information on the Santa Clarita Valley Chloride Compliance efforts, please contact:

Basil A. Hewitt at (562) 908-4288, extension 2311
Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County
1955 Workman Mill Road
Whittier, CA 90601

Revised May 2014