There's a threatening-looking man in a dark suit is at the door holding a very large plumber's wrench. "Knock, knock!" says the graphic. "Who's there?" "Sacramento politicians coming to take you water softener away," reads the answer. "Don't let them!"
This ominous web ad has been running on numerous California political websites, including Capitol Weekly's The Roundup. It's part of the late-stage battle over a water recycling bill that has been moving forward with bipartisan support.
AB 2270 by Assemblyman John Laird, D-Santa Cruz, would expand the targets set out in the Water Recycling Act of 1991. It would also expand the powers of the Department of Water Resources and local water agencies to control what is going into the water system. This is where the opposition comes in. The bill "would authorize any local agency that maintains a community sewer system to take action to control residential salinity inputs, including those from water softeners."
Water softener systems use salts to remove minerals, mainly calcium and magnesium, which "harden" water. These systems run anywhere from a few hundred dollars to over $4,000 according to Gene Erbin, a lobbyist representing Culligan International Company with the firm Nielsen Merksamer. Erbin estimates between 10 and 15 percent of Californians households have these systems.
Hard water, Erbin said, reduces the life of appliances, causes buildup on sinks and showers, leaves dishes spotty when they come out of the dishwasher, can worsen skin conditions like eczema, and damages clothing when it's washed. It can even raise bills for heating water, because mineral-rich in hard water has a higher thermal mass than softer water.
The problem, Laird said, it the amount of salt water softeners are adding to the water supply. For instance, he said, without this bill, the city of Dixon, population 15,000, will have to spend $20 million on a reverse osmosis filtering plant to take out these salts. AB 2270 allows local agencies to decide whether they want to build large, centralized facilities, or go the route of buying out water softeners from homes.
"One percent of water users are creating 10 percent of the salinity that 100 percent of us have to pay to clean up," Laird said.
"The current law gives water softeners a carve-out. It basically says you have to have studies that address every other salinity issue before you get to water softeners. This evens the playing field and allows this to be dealt with at the local level. Nobody has proposed mandatory removal of water softeners. It requires compensation."
The ad campaign-which has also included full-page ads in newspapers-is part of a last-ditch effort to get Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to veto a bill that has been moving forward with strong bipartisan support, Laird said. AB 2270 got 51 voters in the Assembly, and 27 votes on the Senate Floor.
The Senate support included Dave Cogdill, R-Fresno, Bob Margett, R-Glendora, and five other Republicans. One thing they all had in common is they represent areas with heavy agriculture, Laird said. The California Farm Bureau Federation, along with other farmers' groups and 15 towns and cities in farming areas, form the backbone of support for the bill. Rising salinity in groundwater is one of the greatest threats to agriculture-and has been credited with turning many formerly productive parts of the Middle East into desert.
Erbin countered with a study from the city of Tracy, about an hour to the south of Sacramento. They found they water softeners were only the fourth-leading cause of salinity discharge, dwarfed by agriculture, leaks in the existing water system, and residential discharge.
"Please tell us by the demonstrable failure in existing law," Erbin said. "Every time you flush your toilet, every time you brush your teeth, every time you take a shower, that's a residential input."
There is a potential technical solution out there, but it could be quite expensive. Typical water softener systems flush used salt into the sewer system in the middle of the night. "Portable exchange" systems, on the other hand, store the used salt for a technician to come periodically remove and replace. But portable exchange is far more expensive, Erbin said.
"If you said people in California could only use portable exchange, that would wipe out of a lot of small business people," Erbin said.