Sanitation officials eagerly trying to complete a four-year plan to reduce the amount of chloride discharged into the Santa Clara River – but who were derailed by a lawsuit challenging their plan’s impact on the environment – were given the green light by a judge to proceed with that plan.
The Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District is back on track to pursue its Chloride Compliance Project following a favorable court ruling handed down Tuesday.
“On October 24, the court ruled that the SCV Sanitation District can move forward with the state-mandated chloride compliance project,” sanitation district spokesman Bryan Langpap told The Signal Wednesday.
“The Sanitation District’s Board is expected to discuss this issue in closed session at their next meeting,” he said.
In the meantime, the district is expected to press ahead with the plan promised to state officials in October 2013 to reduce chloride contamination levels in the Santa Clara River so that they comply with state levels.
Work on the project shut down in June when a judge told sanitation officials to stop working on their chloride-reduction plan until environmental concerns were addressed.
On Tuesday, Judge James C. Chalfant with the Los Angeles Superior Court ruled to “partially discharge” the writ filed against the Sanitation District.
The green light was given to sanitation officials to carry on reducing salty chloride in the Santa Clara River.
The decision came as welcome news to civic leaders eager to see closure to the long-standing struggle to reduce salt in the river by reducing the amount of chloride discharged into the watershed.
“The court ruled that the Sanitation District should move forward in meeting its state mandates,” said Laurene Weste, long-standing member of the SCV Sanitation District Board of Directors.
“We’ve now been told to move forward and that all obstacles have been removed,” she told The Signal Thursday.
Weste revealed the court’s decision at Tuesday’s City of Santa Clarita council meeting.
Claims of omission
Environmental lawyer Robert Silverstein who represents the local group which sued the district – called the Affordable Clean Water Alliance – told The Signal Thursday there was more to Tuesday’s court decision which Weste could have shared with the public.
“Ms. Weste omitted mentioning that ACWA has the right to ask the court to stop the District from moving forward at any time,” Silverstein said.
“Judge Chalfant further warned the District it would be proceeding at its own peril,” he said.
“Ms. Weste also failed to disclose the judge’s comments about the District getting ‘very close to the line’ of illegality and deception,” Silverstein said.
“The ACWA believes the District has crossed that line, and we are preparing to prove that in court,” he said.
Other aspects of the same writ remain unresolved and relate primarily to the Sanitation District’s handling of recycled water.
In talking to The Signal Thursday, Weste discussed other aspects of the ongoing court case.
She said the decision that enables the district to get back on track, however, allows it to meet its obligations and avoid fines levied for failing to comply with state mandates.
“The (Los Angeles County Regional Water Quality Control) board has been patient with this whole thing regarding civil litigation,” she said, referring to regulatory board which has the power to issue hefty fines for non-compliance.
In her public announcement of the court’s decision Tuesday, Weste focused on cleaning up the Santa Clara River.
“Moving forward with this project will incorporate advanced treatment to improve water quality that is put into the Santa Clara River at 20 million gallons a day,” she said at city council.
“And we’ll be diligently working to improve that water to protect our public health for generations to come,” she said. “That is an important thing to let everybody know.”
More than a decade ago, downstream farmers claimed chloride levels over 100 milligrams per liter in river water crossing the Ventura County line damaged their salt-sensitive crops like strawberries and avocados.
State water regulators ordered the local sanitation district to drastically reduce the amount of salty chloride it was discharging into the Santa Clara River.
Under the federal Clean Water Act passed in 1972, downstream “beneficial users” of the Santa Clara River, such as Ventura County farmers growing salt-sensitive strawberries and avocados, are entitled to uncontaminated river water.
Since 2002, state water regulators have defined “uncontaminated water” as containing no more than 100 milligrams of chloride per liter in the Santa Clara River.
Allowable chloride levels vary throughout the state, but few in the state are lower than 100 mg/L.
For the past 13 years, Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District staffers have wrestled with various ways of meeting the 100 mg/L level for the naturally occurring component of common table salt.
The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, which is charged with safeguarding water quality in the Los Angeles area, heard a promise from sanitation officials in October 2013 that the plan would be put in place and benchmarks met along the way.
When a benchmark is missed, the state can fine the local sanitation district tens of thousands of dollars as it did in November 2012 when it was ordered to pay a $225,000 fine for having failed to deliver on a prior promise.
The cost of such a fine would be paid by SCV ratepayers in rate increases imposed on anyone who uses SCV’s sewer system.
The SCV Sanitation District Board of Directors approved an Environmental Impact Report in October 2013 that evaluated the impacts of two actions: a Chloride Compliance Project that would meet the state mandated chloride limit and a Recycled Water Project that would enable SCV to increase its reuse of treated water that would otherwise be discharged to the river.
The 2013 EIR was challenged in court, however, and the court’s ruling delayed both projects until additional study is completed on the potential impacts to unarmored threespine stickleback, an endangered fish.
Of the district’s two projects – only the Chloride Compliance Project is subject to a regulatory deadline and fines.
To satisfy both the court and state water officials, the district unveiled its “recirculated EIR” a couple of months ago in a bid to evaluate the environmental impacts of pursuing the recycled water project separately from the Chloride Compliance Project.
The recirculated environmental report concluded that separating the recycled water project from the chloride reduction project would reduce impacts relative to those previously identified and would not result in any new mitigation measures.
The plan worked and the two projects were separated.
The district’s plans pertaining to recycled water will have to wait.
“The public didn’t get its (promised) recycled water,” Weste said Thursday, noting that it will receive that recycled water later.
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