"Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal City Editor Leon Worden. The half-hour program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
This week's newsmaker is Dan Masnada, who has served as general manager of the Castaic Lake Water Agency since April 2002. Questions are paraphrased and some answers are abbreviated for length.
Signal: How clean is our water?
Masnada: Our water is very clean once it's treated. Like every other water supply throughout the state, it involves a certain amount of disinfection and filtering in order for us to deliver a healthy and potable water supply to our customers.
Signal: Why does it taste different from bottled water?
Masnada: Because of some of the mineral constituents. That's basically what gives taste to the water. If you drink distilled water you really wouldn't like the taste, because there are no minerals in distilled water and it would have a flat taste to it.
Signal: Is it a myth that bottled water is cleaner and safer than tap water?
Masnada: I believe so. The standards under which treated water from a water retailer is provided ... are more strict than they are in the bottled water industry...
Signal: Groundwater contamination has been in the news lately. What the devil is perchlorate?
Masnada: Perchlorate is a chemical or propellant used in the manufacture of explosives, and here in the valley at the site that's commonly referred to as the Whittaker-Bermite site, the explosives manufacturing process was conducted there from, I believe, the å40s through the mid-'80s or so. For the better part of four decades there were explosives, missiles for the defense industry, manufactured out at the site, and ... there was quite a bit of material that was disposed of or burned at the site, rather than hauled off to an approved disposal site.
Signal: Where is the perchlorate now?
Masnada: What's happened is, it has gone into the soil and it continues to migrate downward, and some of it has reached the Saugus formation groundwater supply.
We have two groundwater supplies here in the valley. The deeper one is the Saugus formation. The shallower one is referred to as the alluvium. Four wells were ultimately shut down because perchlorate was detected in those water supply wells four Saugus wells and then last year, there was an alluvial well right near the Whittaker-Bermite site, near the Metrolink station, that perchlorate was found in, and that was also shut down.
Signal: Some of our water comes out of the ground, but we also get state water. How does that work? What is the Castaic Lake Water Agency?
Masnada: The Castaic Lake Water Agency was initially formed to deliver state water to the valley. Basically it supplements the groundwater supply, which is the local supply, in order to meet the growing needs of the valley.
Signal: Is all our of groundwater polluted? Can state water make up the difference?
Masnada: Not all the groundwater is polluted. ... A portion of the Saugus aquifer, near and underlying the Whittaker-Bermite site, has perchlorate in it. Ultimately, remediation of the perchlorate is no different from what we're doing for every other last drop of water here in the valley. It involves treatment. Whether it's groundwater or state water, we treat that supply. Perchlorate the technology is there to treat the groundwater supply.
The main issue in my mind is, who's going to pay for it? Should the existing residents of the valley pay for it, or should the polluters Whittaker-Bermite and its predecessors and interests pay for that? And that's why the water agency, along with three of the retail purveyors, initiated litigation a couple of years ago, in order to force the polluters to pay for the ultimate remedy...
Signal: What was the upshot?
Masnada: Right now, Whittaker-Bermite is working with the (California) Department of Toxic Substances Control ... in regard to remediating both the soil and the groundwater. The water agencies are involved in the process as it relates specifically to remediating and also restoring that water supply to potable use.
Signal: If Whittaker has agreed to do some cleanup, does that mean you won your lawsuit?
Masnada: No, the lawsuit's not over. We're in discussions now with the defendants to possibly settle the litigation. There may be an interim settlement. I really can't go into a whole lot of detail ... until a settlement is announced. But essentially the goal is to ... identify the remedy and then ultimately implement the remedy and then also to ensure that the defendants bear the lion's share, if not all, of the costs to do so and their insurers. I should point out that the insurers of Whittaker-Bermite and the prior owners are also involved in the litigation and the settlement discussions.
Signal: Whittaker had insurance against an environmental disaster?
Masnada: It had a lot of insurance and a lot of different insurers over the years.
Signal: What is taking so long? It was 1997 when those first wells were closed. The Army Corps of Engineers said there's more perchlorate in the alluvial aquifer. If it's spreading, what are the water agencies going to do about it?
Masnada: That's the effort that involves our working with the regulatory entities, principally DTSC. When you say it's spreading, the real question is how fast it's spreading. In the Saugus aquifer ... the rate of spread could be very slow over the course of time. Ultimately I would say that it is spreading, it is moving. Now to what degree it's being diluted as it's spreading, I don't know. That's what the ongoing studies are intended to determine: the extent of the so-called plume, both horizontally and vertically, within the aquifer, and also, there has been more recent work being done in the alluvial aquifer.
Signal: The Saugus formation is this deep underground water supply...
Masnada: Which essentially underlies the whole valley.
Signal: It's presumed that the Saugus doesn't move too much, but the shallower alluvial aquifer moves quickly. So now if the perchlorate is in the alluvial aquifer, won't it spread all over the place?
Masnada: The Saugus moves slowly. It does move. ... A drop of water that starts, say, at the Whittaker-Bermite site, would eventually end up at Blue Cut out toward Fillmore, along 126, and make its way into the alluvium, and then eventually into the (Santa Clara) River, because the water does surface there, and so it does move.
The alluvium ... is much more dynamic. (We're) trying to figure out just how fast it would be moving in the alluvium. We don't know that just yet. But that's not to say there hasn't been perchlorate in the alluvium for quite some time.
The beauty of the alluvium is that it flushes very quickly, and the perchlorate could be diluted with heavy rains. (But) it has been dry the last few years. The reason we may have seen the perchlorate in the alluvium recently (may be) because it has been so dry and it hasn't flushed the perchlorate.
But again, the work that we're doing along with the Corps is intended to determine what the extent of the plume is...
Signal: Who's paying for that? The taxpayers?
Masnada: The federal taxpayers as a whole are paying for half of it; the water agency is paying for the other half of the study. And then we're hoping that ultimately, either through the settlement process or through the continued litigation, that we'll be able to recover those costs from the defendants.
Signal: Valencia Water Co. is one of three local retailers that pump water out of the ground. Our water generally moves west. Is perchlorate showing up in any more Valencia Water wells?
Masnada: No. And those wells are tested routinely. That's what led to the closure of the five wells that I mentioned earlier. It's part of the routine testing program that ... identified that the perchlorate was there and (shut) the wells. All of the other wells that are (producing) in the valley do not contain any perchlorate, certainly not in any detectable levels, and the detection limit is any thing over 4 parts per billion (ppb), which is a very small amount.
Signal: How much perchlorate would be allowed to be in a well locally before it's shut?
Masnada: Right now, we shut down any well that shows any level of perchlorate...
Signal: Are other chemicals present in our water supply? Or is perchlorate the only problem today?
Masnada: At that location (Whittaker-Bermite) I think they've identified a few other chemicals ... but perchlorate is truly the principal one.
Signal: We're coming up on the second anniversary of 9-11. What is CLWA doing to prevent a chemical or biological attack on our water supply?
Masnada: Recently we completed a vulnerability assessment that looked at not just our facilities, but also Santa Clarita Water Division's, our retail subsidiary's, facilities, along with the Newhall County Water District's facilities, and they identified areas where we could in effect enhance our security. And I can't tell you what those are, obviously.
But one (thing) we've done up at the Rio Vista (Water Treatment Facility in Saugus) is that we had to severely limit the public's access to the water conservation garden, which we've only now recently started restoring, after (adding some) fencing, to keep the treatment facilities separate from the garden facilities...
Signal: Since 9-11, has there ever been a serious threat to the local water supply or any water facilities in the Santa Clarita Valley?
Masnada: None at all.
Signal: Where does state water come from?
Masnada: The state project water essentially comes from the northern Sierras. The main supply source ... for state project water is Lake Oroville, and then that water is released through the river system and through the (Sacramento) Delta, and then comes down the California Aqueduct, which is now the Pat Brown Aqueduct, which essentially parallels I-5. And then the west branch is a branch off the main aqueduct which delivers water both to Castaic Lake Water Agency, Metropolitan Water District, and then there's water that could be delivered to Ventura that would come out of Castaic Lake for those three entities.
Signal: Our valley is supposed to double in population over the next 20 years or so. It state water an unlimited resource?
Masnada: No, it's not an unlimited resource. It is limited, both physically and by contract. We have a contractual right of up to 95,200 acre-feet of water. Depending on weather conditions we may get most or part or even all of it, but it isn't 100-percent reliable. And even of the 95,200 acre-feet, there was 41,000 acre-feet that we acquired back in 1999 that was litigated by some of our local environmental groups, or activist groups, as I would put it, and so we're essentially perfecting that right by redoing an EIR...
Signal: In 1999, CLWA purchased additional water rights?
Masnada: We actually purchased state water contract rights from one of the member units of the Kern County water agency just north of us...
Signal: That roughly doubled the amount of state water that's available to CLWA?
Masnada: Pretty close to that. Right.
Signal: What next? If we're to double in size, do you just keep buying those water contract rights? How can growth happen if there's not an unlimited supply of state water or groundwater?
Masnada: There can't be unlimited growth. One of the most important aspects of my job, or the agency's job, is to ensure that we develop and acquire water to meet the needs of the valley.
There's the age-old issue, and it's a chicken-and-egg thing, where at least in the minds of certain activists who have seen fit to file lawsuits against us well, if they can control the water supply or limit the water supply, they can limit the growth. And so we've had to fight those battles. But again, my job is to make sure that first of all, if the ... city and county want to develop a certain amount of acreage, they need to provide us information about what their plans are, what their zoning (is), so then we can run the calculations to determine how much water is needed for that new growth on top of what's already here.
... If we can acquire additional supplies to meet that demand, fine; if we can't, we need to be talking to the city and county and say, hey, we can only get so much, or we can only bring it on in a phased manner, or we can't get it at all in order to make sure that we not only represent our future customers, but that we protect our existing customers (and) make sure that they don't pay any more or any less for the water supply that they're getting. And then when we acquire the new water supplies, we need to make sure that the future customers pay for those water supplies, and the burden is not placed on the backs of the existing customers.
Signal: What do our property taxes and water fees go for?
Masnada: Essentially what you pay your retailer for are its operating costs and, to the extent that it passes through our wholesale rate, our operating costs.
Through your tax roll, you're paying for the state water project cost, for that part of the plumbing system. You've got a plumbing system that starts up in the northern Sierras; through the tax roll you're paying for that...
And then through the water rate, as an existing customer, you're paying for our operations and the retailer's operations to treat and deliver that water to your household.
And then the connection fees are paid for by developers, again, representing the future customers. So ... if it's not coming out of the developer's pocket, it will be coming out of the next person who's moving into the valley and not an existing one.
Signal: So you're saying the existing residents' fees and taxes do not pay for growth.
Masnada: Correct. That's the intent. The fundamental equation (is), the cost that you pay is equivalent to the benefit you receive. The same holds for existing users and for future users.
Signal: You mentioned activists. Critics accuse the agency of being a tool of developers and fueling growth by buying water rights to supply new housing projects, and by having a developer-owned water company representative on the CLWA board. How do you answer that?
Masnada: My answer is, we respond to the land-use planning agencies. We respond to the cities and the counties. It's a coordinated process. They have to communicate to us, we have to communicate to them.
We're not trying to fuel growth. That issue is transparent to us, as a practical matter. But, if the county says, "Hey, I'm going to approve this Newhall Ranch project," for example, that involves a certain amount of water, and the water agency has to provide some; "do you have it or not?" We'll answer the question as to whether we have it or not. If we don't have it, and the county is processing this project, we would try to go out and acquire that water to meet that demand. It's no different from going to PG&E and saying, "Do you have the power or not to provide us?" Same thing. We're not trying to lead the charge on that one, but we are trying to coordinate with the land-use agencies.
... The activists in dealing with them, I've developed at least three truisms. One is that they state that we overstate our water supplies, presumably because we're fueling all this growth, on the one hand. But on the other hand, those are the same folks and it's more individuals than it is organizations; it's about five or six individuals under the guise of about three or four different organizations here locally, but it's the same folks so anyway, they accuse us of overstating our water supplies on the one hand, but on the other hand, when we go to expand those water supplies, they'll sue at the drop of a hat. So how do the two go hand-in-hand?
And then, often times they're criticizing us, if they can't criticize us on the results, they'll criticize us on the process. And even then I'd say that the criticism that we're getting on the process isn't valid. But it's like throwing the whole sink at us from a litigation standpoint.
And last but not least ... if they get an adverse ruling, or if the agency gets a favorable ruling, if they appeal they say they're representing the public interest. If we appeal an adverse ruling, (they say) we're wasting the taxpayers' money.
So those are the three truisms I've come to recognize after moving back here to the valley.
See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m. and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.