Salt in the Santa Clara River
The Santa Clara River provides recreational opportunities and supports important wildlife habitat. Its water is diverted to irrigate thousands of acres of cropland. It recharges critical underground water basins tapped by farms and cities.
During most of the year, the majority of the water flowing in the Santa Clara River consists of highly treated discharges from wastewater treatment plants upstream in Los Angeles County. In recent years, due to rapid growth in the population of the Santa Clarita Valley, the water released by those treatment plants has become laden with chlorides and other salts. The chloride levels have risen so high that they have begun poisoning some of Ventura County’s most important crops, including strawberries, avocados and nursery stock, all of which are particularly salt-sensitive.
For the past several years, a coalition of Ventura County growers, water agencies and agricultural organizations has been working to halt this contamination.
A. There are several sources. Much of the water delivered to homes in the Santa Clarita Valley is from the State Water Project, and it picks up salt before it is pumped from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Some salt is a product of the water-disinfection process. Historically, however, the biggest single contributor was the brine produced by self-regenerating household water softeners, which was discharged into the municipal sewer system.
A. When salt levels rise above a certain level, they cause plants to weaken or even die. Even minor plant damage reduces crop yields, cutting into farmers’ revenue. Nursery stock being grown for ornamental purposes often cannot be sold if its foliage shows signs of damage. Currently, the Saugus and Valencia treatment plants discharge more than 8 million pounds of salt into the river each year.
A. Yes. State water quality regulators have ordered the Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District of Los Angeles County, which operates the wastewater treatment plants in Valencia and Saugus, to reduce the level of salt in the effluent they discharge into the river. The allowable limit has been set at a level that will protect salt-sensitive crops in Ventura County.
A. Agencies in the Santa Clarita Valley have adopted several strategies. They have banned water softeners in new construction, and voters approved a ballot referendum outlawing existing softeners. They also are planning to switch to a new water-purification system using ultraviolet light instead of chlorine, which also will reduce chloride in the supply.
A. No. The districts also are planning to build an advanced treatment facility that will filter salt out of the wastewater-plant discharge before it enters the river.
A. Over the years, the Sanitation District has proposed various alternatives. The initial plan was to build a very large reverse-osmosis plant to purify all or most of the effluent. That purification process produces mineral-laden brine as a byproduct, so the project also would have involved a 43-mile pipeline to carry the brine along the Santa Clara River through Ventura County to a new ocean outfall off the Ventura coast. This option was rejected as being too costly, not to mention infeasible from a political and regulatory standpoint.
A. Through negotiation between the Sanitation District and the Ventura County Agricultural Water Quality Coalition, a lower-cost alternative was developed. It would have involved a small reverse-osmosis plant to purify effluent at the Valencia treatment plant, with the waste brine piped to a deep-well injection field in Los Angeles County; a new extraction well field in the East Piru Basin at the approximate location of Camulos Ranch; a pipeline to carry purified water from the Valencia plant to the well field, with an additional turnout approximately at the county line; and a second pipeline from the well field to an outlet on the Santa Clara River near the Fillmore Fish Hatchery. Besides being cheaper for ratepayers in Santa Clarita, it would have provided multiple benefits for downstream users.
A. It won't. Despite many months of negotiation, approval from the Regional Water Quality Control Board, and a protest by only a small percentage of affected ratepayers, the Santa Clarita Sanitation District’s three-member board refused in 2010 to approve the sewer-rate increase needed to pay for it.
A. After the Regional Water Quality Control Board began imposing significant fines and penalties against the Sanitation District for violations of state water-quality standards and conditions of the wastewater treatment plant’s permits, the district proposed yet another alternative. This one is a scaled-down version of the small reverse-osmosis plant previously approved. Deep-well brine injection is no longer regarded as feasible; the waste from the RO plant will be concentrated and trucked to an industrial disposal site. This project is still undergoing environmental review, and is expected to be finalized in 2016 — 27 years after the state established the limit on chloride discharges that Santa Clarita has consistently been exceeding. The state has given the Sanitation District until July 2019 to have the new plant fully operational.