Inquiring minds want to know
Published: September 21, 2012
By Marsha M. Rea
This is the final, final article about water...as promised...How do you make recycled water from the Wastewater Recycling Plant even more valuable? Perhaps by treating our drinking water to remove dissolved chlorides before it reaches residents’ homes. So what are chlorides we all might ask, and why are they such an important issue for us to consider? The answers to these questions are rather complicated, but here is a rough idea: Chloride is one of the two components of sodium chloride, also known as table salt or rock salt. Chloride is found in the drinking water that comes from your tap (both from local groundwater and from water delivered through aqueducts from Northern California). The major source of chloride in wastewater, however, is from water softeners that regenerate where they are installed. We’re talking here about that water softener that probably lives in your garage, and to which you add a bag of salt pellets once or twice a month, not the exchange tanks that a service replaces once or twice a week. The replacement tanks do not create a problem for our community. Chloride is also added to wastewater via human waste, swimming pools, cooling towers, boilers, and cleaning chemicals such as chlorine bleach.
The overall problem of chlorides in our water is very clearly a regional one, caused by a number of factors outside the control of our local government. Chlorides have been increasing in the Santa Clara River Watershed for decades, and have now reached levels in the aquifer that are beginning to interfere with farming in the valley. Crops such as avocados, and strawberries are very sensitive to chlorides. If chloride levels in the irrigation water rise beyond a specific range they may cause the plants and trees to have a “burned” appearance, or crop yields may drop to the point of being uneconomical, which will have a direct impact on our local economy. Most of the chloride in our river and aquifer comes from upstream in the Santa Clarita Valley, where wastewater treatment plants in Saugus and Valencia do not treat for chlorides and flush their effluent into the Santa Clara River. By the time their wastewater spills from one underground aquifer to another, or drains from the river into the Santa Paula Basin (from which Santa Paula’s wells draw our water), the chloride levels are at too high a concentration to meet State and Federal water quality standards. While there doesn’t appear to be a direct impact on human health, the potential harm to crops that can be grown locally may impact the future “health” of agriculture in Santa Paula and our valley.
The main reason for building a new wastewater treatment plant was to avoid fines from the RWQCB; associated with high concentrations of pollutants in the water effluent. One of the challenges that our new plant might have addressed was the excessive amount of chlorides that were going from the old wastewater plant into the underground aquifer and river. However, in today’s world, conventional treatment technology cannot remove chlorides. Reducing excessive chloride levels in the wastewater discharge would have required a far more expensive treatment process - Reverse Osmosis. This process would, in turn, have demanded additional infrastructure in the form of a dedicated pipeline (a brine-line) that would have moved the residual extra-salty water from our plant, to connect with an existing brine-line in Saticoy, in order to carry it out to the ocean at Oxnard. Several millions of dollars into the pipe/out the drain, so to speak...
When negotiations for the new wastewater treatment plant were ongoing, the main question, that apparently was shelved by the City Council and never resurfaced, was whether to treat the wastewater for chlorides when it comes out of the treatment plant after processing, or to treat the drinking water for chlorides at the well source. This is neither an easy nor simple dilemma to solve. All options are complicated and very expensive.
The solution to the chloride problem must be a regional one that will require cooperation among several jurisdictions. The City might have attempted to enact a ban on all home regeneration water softeners, which might have had a beneficial impact, although it seems that there may be no firm legal ground on which to base such a regulation. Fillmore has enacted a ban on home water softeners, but the jury is still out on whether the ban has been effective. Santa Clarita has so far refused to enact such a ban, and contributes a high volume of the chlorides to the Santa Paula Basin. Efforts among regional stakeholders to find solutions for the overall problem have been contentious and long-lived, mainly because they have divergent interests to protect. No clear remedy has yet to be agreed. Santa Clarita and the RWQCB are locked in litigation. When that is resolved, the Regional Board vows to begin fining communities that have failed to reduce the excessive level of chlorides in their respective wastewater discharge. A source familiar with the issues indicates that the RWQCB acknowledges that there is no current solution to the regional chloride problem, and that there may not be one for years to come. Given those facts, they may be reluctant to punish cities that make at least good faith efforts to mitigate current chloride effluents. It appears that Santa Paula falls into this category, so we may have dodged a bullet on that front. At least for the short term...
It seems to the writer that it is incumbent on city officials to participate in regional mitigation efforts and to deal proactively with the local ramifications of the problems that approach from up-stream. At the very least, it would be good to inform the community about the issues, and about the council’s thoughts related to them. A stakeholder group of the communities in the valley (Fillmore, Piru, Santa Paula and Ventura, with the County taking the lead) have obtained a $500 thousand grant to commission a study on Salt and Nutrients in the local aquifer. This is a good first step, which should be followed by a call to action. We will follow the progress of the study and keep you informed as we have new information to share.
As is mentioned above, the only method currently available for improving our water is Reverse Osmosis, which some readers may already use to treat their tap water. Some of the benefits of this approach to Santa Paula customers are: avoiding the potential fines from the Regional Board, improving the final quality of recycled water we could sell to agricultural interests, and being able to use the recycled wastewater on sensitive trees and plants. Plus...our tap water would taste far better! These are issues the City Council was discussing between 2002 and 2006, but with the change in makeup of the Council, the subject seems to have been tabled. Perhaps it has not been as high on the priority list as it might have been. Six years is a long time to not wrestle with even such a complicated issue.
One approach, although costly, is to treat the drinking water after it is pumped from the ground, before it is delivered to homes and businesses. The major benefit of such an approach is that the water would not need to be softened individually. It seems that this might be a reasonable program over the long term; however, much research would need to be done. The major challenge is that softening the water at the wellheads would still require building a brine-line to Saticoy. A local corporation has offered to build the brine-line in exchange for the city contributing its remaining water rights to a public/private partnership over which the corporation would have control. In the opinion of the writer, this would not be a deal to serve the best long-term interests of the city. Better we stand back, take a look at what other options are, or will be, available to us instead of obligating ourselves to yet another “bird-in-the-hand” deal that would be hard to break in the future, when the value of our water increases significantly in a more vibrant market. As Kenny Rogers says in his old song The Gambler, “you need to know when to hold ‘em”, now’s not the time to fold ‘em...
The actual cost of a community water softening plant to benefit the community is difficult to assess because the City does not know how many people buy bottled water and how many homes have water softeners, exchange tanks or water filtering systems. We do know that this approach would have the greatest community benefit because the water being delivered to our homes and businesses would be of a much higher quality, and could be used for sensitive purposes without further treatment. The long-term cost-savings of longer-lasting appliances, the reduced hassle of lugging heavy bags of salt pellets, or buying and lugging drinking water home in 5-gallon water bottles may be even harder to calculate.
Additionally, softening the water we take from the aquifer, before it reaches primary users, improves the quality of recycled water at the other end of the pipe. So where does this discussion leave us? In a previous column we were talking about the value of recycled water, and whether it was worth investing in the pipe and a pump system to use it ourselves or sell it to others. The truth is, that while there may not be much of a market today because of the current economic downturn, the market will very likely be there by the time we have a system in place. In the opinion of the writer, people who say our recycled water is worthless are simply uninformed or are being disingenuous. The higher the quality of the water we can offer to agricultural and development interests, the broader the appeal we will have to sell our recycled product in the marketplace. Recently two farmers in the Dudley Ridge Water District in Kings County, north of Kern County, made a very good deal for their water rights. The farmers pay a maximum of $500 per acre-foot of water to buy it from the state water project, KFSN-TV reported. But the Tejon Ranch is paying the farmers $5,850 an acre-foot to support their development south of Bakersfield, meaning that the sellers will net $11.7 million. (An acre-foot is generally considered the amount of water two average households use annually.) Not a bad day’s profit by any standard...
If we can put in a system at a cost of $22-30 Million, using low interest loans and grants from the state, we can recoup our costs through sales, developer fees or reduced pumping costs in a few years as the economy improves. We will also have the security of knowing that we are in charge of our future; maintaining control of water we may need for growth, or that we can sell to provide for the needs of our community.
Complicated issues and no easy solutions to be sure... These are problems (or maybe opportunities?) that will take the input of the many savvy, creative people in our community, lots of will power and an investment of lots of time to resolve. But then again, we’re looking forward to creating a better community for ourselves and for future generations, so what do we have to lose?
Next time: More thoughts from Geek Land - Open Government... What a Concept!