Plans to store contaminated water under Ahmanson Ranch raise environmental concerns

By Michael Collins

Los Angeles CityBeat/ValleyBeat – February 24, 2005

water_storyThe deluge of rain soaking Southern California hasn’t washed away the problems of a scant water supply throughout the region. Now a plan to bank reclaimed water in eastern Ventura County has raised concerns that it could inadvertently spread radiological and chemical contamination from Rocketdyne’s Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) which straddles the hills between the Simi and San Fernando valleys. One worrisome aspect of this proposal is that the draining of the SSFL-adjacent Ahmanson Ranch aquifer down Las Virgenes Creek could negatively impact that ecologically sensitive area by drawing Rocketdyne pollutants into the creek, into Malibu’s estuary, and onto its beaches.

Banking giant Washington Mutual had planned to build 3,050 residences at Ahmanson Ranch in the southeast corner of Ventura County. The development had counted on using 660,000 gallons of the groundwater daily to irrigate the development’s two proposed golf courses, playgrounds, and common areas. In the summer of 2002, a high level of the toxic rocket fuel oxidizer perchlorate was found in the aquifer, and WaMu officials promised the County it would not use the tainted groundwater. Regardless, the development collapsed in early fall of that year in part due to concern over poisons possibly emanating from Rocketdyne. On October 3, 2003, then-Governor Davis declared the 2,783-acre ranch an open space preserve after the state paid WaMu $150 million.

Three weeks later on October 27, the Triunfo Sanitation District (TSD), which serves eastern Ventura County, convened a meeting to discuss storing excess reclaimed water being generated by the joint TSD/Las Virgenes Municipal Water District wastewater reclamation project in the Ahmanson aquifer. The two districts – the first in Ventura and the other in L.A. County – jointly operate the Tapia wastewater reclamation plant situated along the Las Virgenes Creek, which flows into Malibu Creek and down to Surfrider Beach.

The only opponent of the plan was Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks, a vocal adversary of the Ahmanson Ranch development before it tanked. “I opposed this also because engineers have said the existing water under Ahmanson would have to be removed in order to put the reclaimed water in,” says Parks. “This concerns me because of the potential that siphoning out the Ahmanson aquifer could draw out and spread the contaminated water from neighboring Rocketdyne. At the last TSD meeting, I was shocked that a board member went so far as to propose studying whether they could put their reclaimed water in the Rocketdyne aquifer. The TSD Board approved investigating this despite my objections.”

The use of the Ahmanson aquifer to store reclaimed water is part of a $30 million plan to also use the Simi Valley aquifer for reclaimed water storage. Parts of western Simi Valley regularly flood due to the high water table and require pumping to keep it from wreaking havoc on businesses and homes there. Last December, TSD applied to the State Water Resources Control Board for $15 million to advance the idea of this dual aquifer storage.

“The [Ahmanson] aquifer drains itself in the lean years and in the wet years fills up – it is not something that’s always full,” says Ron Stark, chairman of TSD. “The underground aquifer that is the closest one to Tapia is the Ahmanson aquifer. Now, if it’s at all technically possible that we don’t do any damage to the environment, and we can find some way that we can use the water in the aquifer year-round, replenishing it with the Tapia water in the winter, that would be a bonus for everybody. The thing is that we do it without hurting anybody. You don’t know until you have consultants look at it. When they give us their yes or no, then we go to the next step.”

But drainage and use of the Ahmanson aquifer would do just that, according to Mark Abramson, Malibu Creek Stream team manager for the environmental group Heal the Bay. “This proposal was laughed out of the water when it was introduced several years ago,” says Abramson. “It would be a disaster to Las Virgenes Creek and East Las Virgenes Creek. It would create an algal impairment in the pristine headwaters of the Malibu Creek Watershed and potentially degrade downstream water quality with an unknown blend of toxic contaminants from below Rocketdyne. Approval of this plan would be a terrible mismanagement of a public resource.”

At issue is the interconnectivity between the Ahmanson aquifer and the heavily polluted groundwater underneath Rocketdyne’s lab. “They are definitely connected by way of faults, and the faults are significant as far as the groundwater migration,” says Jim Slosson, former state geologist under Governor Reagan and now chief engineering geologist for Slosson and Associates, his Van Nuys-based geology consulting firm. “I think that would be almost a stupid move because the greatest part of the contaminated aquifer in the Ahmanson Ranch area is in area immediately right up there by Burro Flats,” he said, referring to Rocketdyne’s radiological area, the site of a partial nuclear reactor meltdown in 1959 as well as numerous other nuclear accidents and mishaps.

Another aspect of the reclaimed water scheme that alarms opponents is using the resource to help dilute Rocketdyne’s poisonous groundwater. “One of the ways you get rid of toxins in aquifers that have been contaminated with chemicals is through dilution,” says TSD’s Stark. “Now, if they need water, we could pump it over the hill to Rocketdyne. That, again, is up to people running the program, detoxifying the area. We have plenty of water. We’re talking about the reclaimed water from Tapia.”

Slosson finds this idea untenable. “If you were out on a fringe area where there was not as much contaminant material, that might work, but to put [reclaimed water] in an area where there is the greatest contamination originally and then try to flush all that out, I think it is not a wise method of groundwater draining as far as the purification and cleansing of the Burro Flats area.”

Parks agrees. “The same kind of thinking was in place for the Rocketdyne proposal. Stark ‘read an article’ that said you could dilute pollutants in water, so it [gave the reclaimed water plan] the added bonus of treating the existing contaminated water,” said Parks. “We need to look much more in depth at our treatment options and find solutions that don’t just transfer our pollution problems from one area to another.

“The last thing this little water district should be considering is monkeying with some of the most contaminated water in our region, if not in our state,” Parks adds.