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Fillmore's water softeners OK'd for buyback program

(4/12/2008) -- The city of Fillmore has approved funds to jump-start a public outreach campaign and buyback program for water softeners in order to stave off state fines for the pollutants they produce.

Public Works Director Bert Rapp said every liter of Fillmore's wastewater contains 50 milligrams more chlorine than the state allows. The chlorine is caused by a large amount of salt discharge from roughly 500 water softeners in Fillmore homes.

To limit pollution and escape fines, Rapp urged the council Tuesday to adopt an $80,000 water softener buyback program, which will employ local plumbers to remove brine-discharging softeners from homes. The program will compensate homeowners about $400 to cover the loss of the softeners.

Mary Farkas, spokeswoman for Fillmore's Chloride Control Committee, said the state could fine Fillmore $3,000 a day for its swollen chlorine output.

Rapp said the fine, mandated by legislation set forth by former Gov. Gray Davis, is a conundrum for the city.

"We cannot remove the salt from the water, and yet the homeowners are granted by the state the right to own softeners and discharge salt in the sewer," he said. "We have to pay the state every time our salt is higher than the limit, so we are in a sort of Catch-22 caused by the political process."

The state has not fined the city yet, Farkas said, but has warned Fillmore it must declare a solution by September. "The state can at that point accept the plan and give us five years to put the plan into action," said Farkas. "Or, they could say, Nope, we're not going to accept the plan and start fining you now.'"

Farkas wants Fillmore High School students to initiate a letter-writing campaign to raise public awareness to the dangers of water softeners.

"We've got to do something, but the community just doesn't seem to be engaged, so I'm trying to do something to get them engaged," she said.

Farkas said she has asked Assemblywoman Audra Strickland, R-Moorpark, to sponsor a bill banning the sale of water softeners in California.

Councilman Scott Lee said some sort of public awareness campaign is warranted.

"We definitely need some sort of an outreach program, because I don't think most people know how serious of a problem this is," Lee said.

Water softeners soften hard' water, which usually has high levels of calcium and magnesium. The devices soften water by exchanging sodium ions with calcium and magnesium ions.

Softened water has high levels of chloride, which can damage local crops. Some of it goes through Fillmore's sewer system to its water recycling facility and eventually into groundwater or the Santa Clara River.

It is illegal in Fillmore to install brine-discharging water softeners, which are subject to a $1,000 fine. The ban affects softeners installed after June 11, 2004. Other types of softeners, which use reverse osmosis and do not discharge brine, are not affected.

But the city cannot trace which homes have installed brine-discharging softeners, frustrating efforts to enforce the ban.

The council voted 3-2 to approve the program, with Councilwomen Laurie Hernandez and Patti Walker voting no.

Rapp said the funding approved by the council Tuesday will be allocated in next year's budget.

By Dawn Witlin

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