SOFTENER BAN MAY BE GOING BEFORE VOTERS FARMERS CLAIM CHLORIDES DAMAGE STRAWBERRY CROPS.
SANTA CLARITA -- Water softeners working away in Santa Clarita garages are threatening strawberry fields some 40 miles away, where the crops draw well water from a riverbed running from the suburbs through the farmland.
And it could be up to local voters to decide what to do.
A ballot measure that would outlaw most softeners in the Santa Clarita Valley is a possibility for a 2008 ballot. If it doesn't pass, residents could face a hefty property tax hike -- as much as $400 a year -- to finance a $350 million desalination system, said Paul Martyn, head of the industrial waste section for the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts.
"Since only one in 11 households has a water softener, I can guess which way that vote would go," Martyn said.
The board of the district governing the Santa Clarita Valley is looking at putting the measure on the local ballot in June or November 2008, Martyn said. If approved, the ban would take effect in 2009.
The problem involves chlorides, or salts, in the Santa Clarita Valley's treated wastewater, which come primarily from the kind of softeners that process bags of salt to neutralize harsh minerals in the water. The residue remains after the sewage is treated and pumped from two wastewater plants into the Santa Clara River, which flows through Ventura County's farmland to the ocean.
Farmers there say the salt in the water they pump from the riverbed for irrigation damages delicate crops such as strawberries and avocados.
For several years they've seen "tip burn," a condition where the tips of leaves turn brown because of high levels of chloride in the water, said Rex Laird, chief executive officer of the Farm Bureau of Ventura County, a nonprofit trade group with 1,700 members.
Under the state's Clean Water Act, which prohibits upstream users from degrading water used downstream for "beneficial purposes" such as agriculture, Ventura County farmers are demanding action and the state is backing them up.
Upstream water treatment plants face a 2013 deadline to cut chlorides to 100 milligrams per liter. So far they've achieved 130 mpl to 140 mpl, but the numbers plateaued and the main culprit is water softeners.
"We're not looking to be punitive about this," Laird said. "All we're asking is that everyone play by the same set of rules and that set of rules is the Clean Water Act."
For five years, the county district and the city of Santa Clarita have been urging residents to get rid of water softeners that send salts into sewers. Canister-style softeners are acceptable because they are cleaned off-site and the brine discarded elsewhere, Martyn said.
In March 2003, the city banned new salt-processing water softeners. Rebate programs followed, including one now that offers residents "reasonable value" up to $2,000 and free removal and disposal of their softeners.
Last week, one of the larger suppliers, Rayne Water Corp., agreed to remove, by the end of 2008, nearly 600 automatic water softeners rented to Santa Clarita Valley residents.
Martyn said he's hoping a similar deal will be cut with other companies, including Culligan.
Ventura County itself is beginning to act. The City Council in Fillmore, where chlorides measure 155 mpl in wastewater, established a citizen committee in June to begin looking at ways to band the problem water softeners. Last week, the Santa Paula City Council discussed technology needed to reduce chlorides as it looks at adding desalination to its new treatment plant.