Did you read last Wednesday’s Signal Newspaper, which included a column titled, “We’re creating community at Earth Arbor Day Festival,” along with a picture of Mayor Pro-Tem Cameron Smyth? I thought it a little odd. It did not say it was written by Cameron Smyth, as I have often wondered if the council members actually write the columns themselves. But putting all else aside, the writing revealed, “The (Arbor Day) festival will kick off with the city celebrating its 29th consecutive year of being awarded the “Tree City USA” designation.”
I could not agree more; the City of Santa Clarita’s efforts in planting thousands of trees all around our community greatly improved our municipality’s look and quality of life. So, if you had been thinking of providing a young tree a place to spread its roots, I hope you had the foresight to pick up one of the free 1-gallon trees at last Saturday’s Earth Arbor Day event. If you missed the event and still long for a tree to hug, young trees are available at our local nurseries at a very reasonable cost. Over 40 years ago, I myself planted a tree in the front yard which was no larger in circumference than a broom handle. Now a very large Fruitless Mulberry, in the summer heat, you can feel the temperature drop when you walk out under it and take a seat in my front atrium.
The second thing which caught my attention was, “The festival also offers residents the tools and resources needed to recycle, compost, and conserve water.” I favor the prospect of recycling. Maybe it is because I am from a generation who fixed things when they were broken, saved leftovers for the next project, and did not believe in discarding usable items. Composting, on the other hand, is another question, because it doesn’t seem like something which will work out too well for those living in apartments, townhouses and condominiums. Yet, when I hear about providing instructions to our residents about water recycling, the hair on the back of my neck begins to rise. Surely, the majority of our population does not believe in wasting water, and we are all aware of the problems which have been created in getting water down from the north, but if our city continues to grow at the current pace, it is highly unlikely individual residents conservation will provide long-term sustainability. In fact, if you look at our water agencies current five-year plan, the only way they can assure an adequate supply over the next five years is for current users to use less. Plus, if the situation was not frustrating enough, every time the community uses less, the water companies want to charge more in order to maintain their infrastructure, because they have no other way to deal with it.
Ok, I’ll admit, I was out of town last Saturday and did not attend Earth Arbor Day. So, maybe you could help me. Did the experts talk about water conservation from the standpoint of using washing machine and shower grey water for residential landscape irrigation? Was information provided in support of rebates to retrofit older homes, where residents need to run their water for a period of time before it becomes warm enough to bathe? Were examples on how to capture and use rainwater provided? Probably not, because creative solutions which take effort do not fit their narrative.
Yet, a very large resource enabling water conservation exists in Santa Clarita today. Several years ago, back when the Regional Water Quality Board decided the chloride level of water coming out of our two wastewater treatment plants was too high, with a stoke of a pen, they decided to require us to lower the level to 100 mg/ltr or less. Think about it. The Chloride standard for water you drink is allowed to be over twice that number. This started the debacle about adding another level of treatment to our wastewater treatment plants, at the cost of over $130 million to build, and $100 million a year to operate. Who will pay the bill? You are. The plan was to ramp up the SCV Sanitation District property tax assessment from 2014 to 2019 in order to reach the level necessary to build and sustain this new proposal. But in order to sell this project to the public, the sales staff was out in full force. They asserted, while our community is rightfully unhappy with the project, lowering the chloride level would make the water also useful for landscape irrigation, and with our treatment plants producing 20 million gallons a day, it was estimated 7 million gallons a day could become immediately available. Be aware, two members of the Santa Clarita City Council also have majority control of the SCV Sanitation District. Their votes alone can raise your property taxes and put the project plan into action. Therefore, the project was easily approved. Planning the additions to the treatment plants was initiated, along with an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) to determine how much of our wastewater treatment plant output needed to be put in the river to maintain endangered species habitats, and how much could be diverted for recycling. Then, along came the lawsuits. The Signal reported, “Judge James C. Chalfant agreed with ACWA (Affordable Clean Water Alliance) lawyers and called for more studies on the effects of recycled water on an endangered species of native fish.” The Sanitation District lawyers indicated, “they would respond specifically to those concerns.” Judge Chalfant, “wanted district officials to explain in greater detail how they will protect the unarmored threespine stickleback – an endangered species of native fish.”
In order to get the project moving forward, the SCV Sanitation District broke the project off into “two separate tracks,” one for the treatment plant improvements, and the other track for the recycled water project. Then, much to the public’s surprise, on February 26, 2019, the SCV Sanitation District reversed course and declared they had “formally ceased its own efforts to reduce discharges to the river in favor of recycling water.” They claimed to take this action to protect the Santa Clarita ratepayers and help “clear the way for regional evaluation of all water resources, which will lead to better solutions.”
Really? The SCV Sanitation District is the only major source of recycled water in the Santa Clarita Valley. Knowing the EIR work stoppage had to have the approval of Santa Clarita Mayor McLean and Councilmember Weste, who represent a majority of the SCV Sanitation District Board, I approached the podium at a city council meeting and asked the Council to agendize a discussion on the Sanitation District’s decision. I suggested the city council provide a recommendation to the SCV Sanitation District, which is in the best interest of the city’s residents. Both Mayor McLean and Councilmember Weste indicated their support and understanding of the need to make recycled water available. Councilmember Weste went on to indicate that the SCV Sanitation District was waiting for California Fish and Game to tell them how much of the 20 million gallons a day could be recycled.
Following up and making a few phone calls, I was able to obtain a copy of a letter from California Fish and Game to the SCV Sanitation District. The correspondence outlined studies and methodology they deemed appropriate, to determine the effect of reducing the amount of water into the river would have on endangered species. Then a few days later, I attended a meeting were Steve Cole presented elements of SCV Water’s “Next Drop” water recycling strategy. As it turns out, SCV Water currently has a contract with the SCV Sanitation District for up to 1600-acre-feet per year of recycled water. Today, SCV Water only uses 400-acre-feet per year, leaving the remaining 1200-acre-feet available to satisfy the current new pipelines being put in the ground to bring recycled water to Central Park.
Getting recycled water to where it is needed is expensive, and I applaud SCV Water for implementing sections over time. But what happens when SCV Water needs to increase use over the 1600-acre-foot contractual limit? Why not increase the amount of recycled water available whenever a new user is added to the SCV Sanitation District service roll? In other words, add capacity as it becomes available. Santa Clarita has a number of large projects under construction or in the works. Therefore, without fighting the “endangered species windmill,” why not capture the increase in flow, rather than just add it to the current outflow and aggravate the problem?
Therefore, it was back to the city council podium, asking them to agendize the issue to discuss a recommendation on how to use the additional user flow. They could have water to fill all those purple pipes the city is putting in the ground. But the silence was deafening, as no words on the subject came forth from any member of the council.
No other organization or agency will be able to implement a long-term water recycling strategy, unless the SCV Sanitation District agrees to provide the raw materials, which in this case is the output of their wastewater treatment plants. It is time for the SCV Sanitation District to start getting creative and take action, which is in the best interest of our valley’s residents. The next time an elected official tries to convince you to take out your lawn to save water, tell them you will consider it as soon as they do their job, and recycled water is flowing through all those purple pipes taxpayer dollars bought and buried in the ground. Because at that point, we will be able to cheerfully recognize that the SCV Sanitation District, SCV Water, the new Groundwater Sustainability Agency, and the City of Santa Clarita have finally found a way to work collaboratively.
Clarification/Response from the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County
The Sanitation District wishes to clarify a couple of statements in the article written by Alan Ferdman titled, “Singing the Praise of Earth, Wind and Water.”
First, the cost to operate and maintain the chloride compliance project is estimated at $5.9 million per year, not $100 million per year as stated in the article.
Second, the recycled water component in the original chloride compliance EIR (and all subsequent environmental documents) was independent of the chloride compliance project. The recycled water component was about making more recycled water available for community reuse and not about improving the quality of river water or recycled water. Today, the treated water from the plants is suitable for a wide range of uses including landscape irrigation.
Due to the adverse court ruling mentioned in the article, the recycled water project was separated from the chloride compliance project in 2018. This separation enabled the chloride compliance project to move forward and minimize the risk of fines to ratepayers.