Sewer officials: Litigation costs have derailed plans

FILE PHOTO. Luz Elena Henao, a treatment plant operator, cleans off large water filters used at the Sanitation District's Valencia Water Reclamation Plant on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017. Christian Monterrosa/ The Signal

Facing the threat of stiff fines from state water officials several years ago, Santa Clarita Valley sewage treatment officials approved a multi-million-dollar plan to desalinate water sent downstream from the SCV to Ventura County.

Now, SCV Sanitation District engineers say the costs from lawsuits over their approved plans are forcing leaders to scuttle a recycled water project on top of the delays to a chloride-compliance project.

The Sanitation District, an L.A. County entity with two local representatives which is responsible for regulating local effluence, was mandated to reduce the amount of chloride, or salt, that discharges from SCV treatment plants into the Santa Clara River.

Facing the potential of fines by the Regional Water Quality Control Board, Sanitation District officials approved two solutions: a recycled water project, and another aimed at their chloride-compliance goal.

On Monday, however, they announced they would not be pursuing recycled-water plans and, specifically, would not be preparing the environmental studies needed to make them happen.

The litigation by a group called the Affordable Clean Water Alliance delayed compliance with the state-mandated chloride limit by two years and cost ratepayers an additional $5 million, according to Grace Robinson Hyde, the chief engineer and general manager of the SCV Sanitation District.

On Monday, Robinson Hyde told the city’s two representatives on the SCV Sanitation Board — Councilwoman Laurene Weste and Mayor Marsha McLean — about the recommendation to pull the plug on recycled-water plans, citing two years in delays and $5 million in costs from the legal challenges. (The third member, county Supervisor Kathryn Barger, was not present.)

“And, to be very clear,” Robinson Hyde said, “all of the legal and resulting costs incurred to date, as well as those potentially incurred in (the) future, have been and will be borne by the ratepayers.”

Plans drowning in legal fees

Robinson Hyde said that in 2013, the district pursued two projects — the chloride-compliance project, which promises to reduce the amount of salty chloride ending up in the Santa Clara River over four years, and the recycled-water project.

However, in addition to stalling the Sanitation District’s chloride-compliance plans, the legal challenges ultimately prompted the SCV Sanitation District to cease efforts to reduce discharges to the river, which would have promoted water recycling.

“This resolution protects Sanitation District ratepayers and helps clear the way for regional evaluation of all water resources, which will lead to better solutions,” Robinson Hyde wrote in a follow-up news release explaining the purpose of this week’s decision.

Pursuing the required environmental studies, according to district officials, would not yield a timely or cost-effective project for its ratepayers due to ongoing litigation. And, they said, it would permit uncertainty and overlap with other regional watershed planning efforts.

SCV Sanitation District officials planned to provide some of the water they treat and discharge into the Santa Clara River watershed to agencies pursuing recycled-water projects, such as the SCV Water agency.

However, members of the SCV Sanitation District board met at Santa Clarita City Hall where they approved a resolution to discontinue the environmental studies related to using more recycled water and discharging less water to the Santa Clara River.

Weste and McLean approved the recommendation.

ACWA response

Environmental lawyer Robert Silverstein, who represented the ACWA in court, said Tuesday: “The Sanitation District has lost two major cases to ACWA. The district repeatedly has been caught wasting ratepayer money on illegal plans.  

“ACWA believes the district needs to be dissolved and an overseer agency installed to actually help the Santa Clarita Valley,” he said. “The district violations of the public trust are too numerous to count.

“Another district falsehood is the claim that we have impacted plans for the provision of recycled water,” he said.

“Helping keep water in the (SCV), at lower costs for the ratepayers, and avoiding the expensive purchasing of Sacramento Bay Delta water, has been a focal point of our efforts, but we have been rebuffed at every turn by the district,” Silverstein said. “If it is true that the district has actually spent $5 million in attorney fees, then they should all be fired. The district could have saved that money by just following the law.”

Allan Cameron, who is affiliated with ACWA, said Tuesday the recycled water project was proposed in court by district lawyers as a way to get their chloride-compliance project approved by ratepayers.

“If the plan was approved, at least, the public would get recycled water in the deal,” he said, noting removal of the recycled-water project taints the court deal presented by the Sanitation District.

“They were saying, ‘We’re going to do a lot for recycled water, so let us move ahead with our chloride compliance project,’” he added.

No recycled water

“The (recycled-water) project would make recycled water available from the treatment plant for use in the (SCV) and in support of the (former) Castaic Lake Water Agency ‘s Master Recycled Water Plan,” Robinson-Hyde said, referring to the Valencia Water Reclamation Plant on The Old Road, near Rye Canyon Road.

“Unfortunately, both projects — the chloride-compliance project and the recycled-water project — were challenged in court by the Affordable Clean Water Alliance.”

Robinson-Hyde said the court has allowed the chloride-compliance project to move ahead as planned.

She also emphasized the consequence of continuing to fight for recycled water in court.

“However, the court has halted the new recycled-water project,” she said.  “While we could continue to navigate the court system and regulatory and permit requirements needed… additional legal costs would certainly result.”

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