Whittier Daily News, CA November 6, 2009

Water bond could bring millions to perchlorate cleanup, water recycling

By Amanda Baumfeld and Rebecca Kimitch, Staff Writers

An $11.1 billion statewide water bond meant to remedy the state’s vulnerable water supply could include more than $150 million for San Gabriel Valley projects.

If voters approve the bond next November, the Valley would see $100 million for groundwater cleanup and at least $50 million for water recycling projects, according to officials.

It would be the largest amount of funding awarded locally to address groundwater contamination, according to Gabriel Monares, director of resource development for the San Gabriel Basin Water Quality Authority.

“The San Gabriel Valley could finally get major money for its water needs” Monares said. “We have never been in a position to get money like this.”

The bond is part of an historic water agreement approved by state lawmakers in the pre-dawn hours Wednesday, after months of negotiations.

The legislation is aimed at improving water reliability in the state, which has been threatened by drought and ecological concerns in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta – the hub of the state’s water system.

Statewide, it includes $1 billion for groundwater cleanup projects, $1 billion for water recycling projects, and $1.05 billion for water supply reliability projects.

Robb Whitaker, general manager of the Water Replenishment District, said the bond package recognizes the role local water projects and innovative water sources, such as water recycling, can play in addressing the state’s water crisis.

“We are very happy with it,” he said. “Our local projects here in our area are an important part to the overall solution of what is happening in the delta.”

Though the legislation doesn’t specifically earmark $150 million for the San Gabriel Valley, it does include language with specific requirements that apply almost exclusively to the region, officials said.

Steve Johnson, interim executive director of the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District, said $50 million from the bill is coming directly to the district for projects to recycle sewage water for use.

“This is the most exciting thing to happen in many years,” Upper District board member Charles Trevi o said.

Whitaker, Johnson, and others said the region can also compete for additional funds from the $3 billion pot.

“It is a pot of funding that is open to all agencies,” said Valerie Howard, spokeswoman for the Central Basin Municipal Water District.

The San Gabriel River watershed could also get a piece of $1.78 billion slated for watershed and ecosystem protection. The San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy would get $75 million.

The $100 million for groundwater cleanup would be used to build treatment plants and has the potential to create upwards of 300 jobs, Monares said.

The Valley is home to one the nation’s largest Superfund sites, partly due to perchlorate contamination. Before its dangers were known, the aerospace and defense sectors freely dumped perchlorate and other contaminants.

Perchlorate has been found to reduce the production of thyroid hormones, which are critical for growth and brain development, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

Total cost of groundwater cleanup in the region has been estimated at $1 billion. So far much of the funding for cleanup has come from the federal government, rather than the state.

Monares and Trevino credit Assemblymen Mike Eng and Ed Hernandez with including the Valley in the bill.

“It came to my understanding that 80 to 90 percent of our water comes from aquifers in the San Gabriel Valley and most of that water is contaminated,” Hernandez said. “The state has never really paid a significant portion of cleaning it up. Given the opportunity, I wanted to make sure we get our fair share of dollars.”

Eng referred to the bill as the most “significant piece of legislation” the area has ever seen.

“It’s the first time we can make sure the San Gabriel Valley has reliable and safe water and we can decrease our dependency on outside water sources,” Eng said.

With a state debt that continues to grow, the biggest hurdle may be convincing voters to approve the bond.

“We are pretty optimistic,” Monares said. “It depends on the economy, the mood of the electorate and who’s supporting it.”

“We have plenty of time to start lobbying our rate payers, our tax payers, plenty of time to convince them of the needs of our communities when it comes to water,” Upper District board President Al Contreras said.

Beyond the bond package, the legislation also requires a 20 percent reduction in water use statewide by 2020, establishes a new council to manage the delta, and changes rules regarding ground water monitoring.

Though it does not explicitly authorize the construction of a controversial canal around the imperiled bay delta, it creates the path for the canal’s construction if certain environmental standards are met.