Regulation of residential water softeners is critical issue

Recently Capitol Weekly ran an opinion piece regarding AB 1366 (Feuer/Caballero/Strickland) – bipartisan legislation supported by an extraordinary coalition of business, agriculture, environmental, water and local governments.  But that piece, written by the director of one of the few special interest groups opposing the bill, so misstates the facts that I am compelled to set the record straight.

California needs to tackle all aspects of our water crisis.  For years, however, state law has unduly constrained local water agencies from determining how best to address one significant water supply and quality issue–excess salinity in some surface and groundwater supplies caused, in part, by residential self-regenerating water softeners.  Following the recommendations of a 2003 Department of Water Resources task force to “reduce the restrictions on local ability to impose bans on, or more stringent standards for residential water softeners,” AB 1366 takes a measured approach to this problem.

Current law gives local and regional agencies wide latitude to regulate salinity inputs from every other source — agricultural, commercial and industrial. In southern California, the Metropolitan Water District adopted a comprehensive plan over a decade ago to control all sources of salinity to increase the local groundwater supplies and to expand water recycling. Water softener sources of salinity were identified as a critical water pollution source.   When it comes to residential water softeners, however, our laws take a unique tack, imposing burdensome restrictions and explicitly limiting what local agencies can do.  Never mind that one typical self-regenerating water softener can dump up to 30 pounds of salt into the sewer system each month, contributing salinity that can make water recycling cost-prohibitive.  Ignore that this salinity can lead a local water agency to be out of compliance with water quality requirements, resulting in unnecessarily costly upgrades to treatment facilities that ratepayers must fund. Pay no attention to the diverse array of salt-free alternatives that are available to residents to remove the hardness from tap water without creating water quality problems.

It’s time to stop exalting the interests of one industry over the interests of all other businesses, agriculture, and, significantly, ratepayers.  The experience of the Santa Clarita Valley in northern Los Angeles County underscores why.

In 2003 approximately 11% of the Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District’s 180,000 residents used self-regenerating water softeners. Yet these softeners contributed more than half of the total salt added to the water before it was discharged into the sewer system.  After considerable effort Santa Clarita was able to obtain special legislation that allowed it to determine locally how best to handle the problem.

The Sanitation District instituted a voluntary rebate program followed by a ban on residential use of self-regenerating water softeners, with reimbursement for any units that were removed.  The result:  The vast majority of Santa Clarita’s problematic water softeners are gone, and the total amount of salt added to its water, as expected, has dropped by almost half.

Had the Sanitation District been forced to remove the equivalent amount of salt through advanced wastewater treatment upgrades–as has occurred elsewhere in California–ratepayers would have paid more than 30 times as much as the rebate and reimbursement program cost. (The water softener industry conveniently neglects to mention this enormous savings when arguing, disingenuously, that because Santa Clarita’s softener rebate, ban and reimbursement program did not solve the city’s entire salinity problem, it somehow didn’t work.)  The lesson of Santa Clarita is clear – expanding the options of publicly accountable local agencies in dealing with salinity issues, as AB 1366 aims to do, can save ratepayers millions of dollars.

The provisions of AB 1366 are the product of two years of negotiations, including negotiations with the Pacific Water Quality Association last month, and unilateral compromises made by the author and sponsors.  With California facing the third year of drought and the California Natural Resources Agency now predicting dramatic reductions in the state’s future water supplies due to climate change, we must take action to protect the water supplies we have.  This means we need to approach the issue of salinity from the standpoint of the public interest, not a single special interest.

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