Paso Robles imposes restraints on salt in water

Every day the city of Paso Robles releases 14,000 pounds of salt into the Salinas River, enough to fill a small dump truck.The salt is dissolved in water discharged by the city’s wastewater treatment plant and is the result of widespread use of water softeners.

The water is so salty that it is causing the city to pay $9,000 a month in state water quality penalties and is a major stumbling block in plans to start a citywide water-reuse plan.

“Inland communities throughout California are struggling to manage salt,” said Matt Thompson, Paso Robles’ wastewater manager. “We are essentially degrading our water supply for future generations.”

In an effort to get a handle on the problem, the City Council last week adopted a set of rules regulating how much salt businesses and industries can discharge. The new rules have some business owners in town crying foul because the rules apply only to businesses, not residences.

“I think if they are going to create something like this, it should apply equally to everyone,” said Rod Smiley, owner of Nu-Way Linen Rental, a commercial cleaning and laundry business. “The problem is all the salt in Paso Robles, not just ours.”

The new rules will take effect in January 2011. This will give the city time to hook up to the Nacimiento water pipeline, a move that is expected to noticeably soften the city’s water supply and may eliminate the need to impose new restrictions, Thompson said.

But the city’s participation in the Nacimiento project is anything but certain. Earlier this year, voters protested water rate increases planned to pay for the city’s part of the Nacimiento project. That triggered the need for an election to decide the matter, which will take place on Nov. 3.

The problem stems from the fact that all of the city’s water comes from underground aquifers. Well water is notoriously high in calcium and magnesium.

Self-regenerating water softeners are most commonly used to remove this hardness. Minerals build up in the softening system over time and are purged automatically using a saline solution.

Once the regeneration is complete, the salt and minerals are dumped into the sewer system. A typical home using a water softener can discharge a pound of salt per day, and some businesses can discharge 700 pounds per week, Thompson said.

The salt is not removed in the sewage treatment process and, if large amounts are discharged over a period of years, entire aquifers can be rendered unusable as drinking water sources. Salty effluent is also toxic to plants and cannot be reused for irrigation purposes.

City officials are hoping the Nacimiento project will solve the problem. Water from the pipeline would be about five times softer than groundwater and would greatly reduce the need to use softening systems.

If Nacimiento water is not enough, some businesses and industries may have to replace their softening systems with ones that don’t use salt or with nonself-regenerating ones that employ canisters that are regularly exchanged without dumping the salt into the sewer system, Thompson said. Businesses will have three years to make any required changes.

Business owners such as Smiley are concerned that they may not be able to get loans to change out their equipment or will be forced to move out of town.

“It’s totally unfair to businesses,” he said.

The new ordinance targets businesses because they tend to use much greater volumes of water than a residence does. Restricting water softeners in 10 or 15 businesses could significantly reduce the amount of salt that winds up in the sewer system, Thompson said.

The problem is not restricted to Paso Robles. The community services districts in San Miguel and Templeton restrict the use of self-regenerating water softeners due to the salt problem.

San Miguel banned them in 2003 when a small subdivision was built that used them, said Mike Ellison, San Miguel CSD general manager.

“Luckily, we caught the problem before the Regional Water Quality Control Board started fining us,” he said.

Staff writer Tonya Strickland contributed to this report.