The Meaning of Hahamongna

The original settlers of the region were sometimes called the Hahamongna Indians. The word means "Flowing Waters, Fruitful Valley" in the native Tongva language.

Hahamongna News

Title:

Valley sees progress

Subtitle:

More time, funding still needed to complete effort

Date:

2006-09-03

Author:

Fred Ortega

Publication:

Pasadena Star News

Content:

It has been more than 20 years since dangerous chemicals were first detected in the vast, underground water basin beneath the San Gabriel Valley, and substantial progress is finally being made in cleaning up the toxic mess.

But officials say a lot more work - and more money - is needed to finish the decades-long job.

So far, a little more than $500 million in funding has been secured for the estimated $1 billion needed to remove contaminants from six different hot spots in the Valley, said Gabriel Monares, director of development for the San Gabriel Basin Water Quality Authority. The authority was formed by the state Legislature in 1993 to manage water treatment programs in the basin, which is roughly the size of Lake Tahoe and provides about 92 percent of the San Gabriel Valley's drinking water.

The contaminants in the basin, which include mostly industrial solvents called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and perchlorate, an ingredient found in jet fuel, can have an adverse effect on people's health if ingested in large enough quantities. Effects can range from disruption of thyroid function, impaired development in newborns whose mothers have been exposed to the chemicals, and nervous system depression, among other things.

In the mid-1980s, VOC levels detected in Azusa, Irwindale, Baldwin Park, El Monte, South El Monte, Monterey Park and La Puente were up to 1,000times higher than the maximum level of contaminant considered safe by the federal government. That led the Environmental Protection Agency to declare five areas in the Valley as Superfund sites.

Since then, the Irwindale- Baldwin Park contamination has migrated southward; perchlorate contamination has also cropped up at many of the sites and new VOC hot spots have been detected in the Alhambra area.

The money secured for the cleanup so far has been used to build nearly 20 treatment plants and many more wells, under the direction of the San Gabriel Basin Water Quality Authority. These facilities extract the contaminated water and clean it through state-of-the-art systems, from carbon filters and specialized resins that remove perchlorate through ion exchange, said Dan Colby, project resource manager for the authority.

"All the water that is being provided to our consumers meets federal and state standards for safe drinking water," said Colby. After long, drawn-out court battles, the government and the authority have been able to reach settlements from eight of the 19 biggest polluters in the Valley, companies such as Aerojet General Corp., Huffy Corp. and Wynn Oil Co., which were all located at the head of the Baldwin Park contamination area in Azusa. But in some cases the polluters have been identified as small, independent business like dry cleaners. In others, officials have not been able to trace the source of the pollution.

"Many of them are small, mom-and-pop shops with no resources," said Monares. "And even in sites where we have found perchlorate and we can't trace who did it, the EPA says you can't just clean the VOCs. You have to clean it all up, and that makes it a lot more expensive."

And even with final treatment plants coming on line in the next two years, it will take between 10 and 30 years to finish the cleanup job, Monares said. All these factors combined leave a little more than a $400million funding gap, he said. While 81 percent of the roughly half-billion dollars secured so far has come from settlements with polluters and 13.4 percent from the federal government, the state of California has only contributed 1.5percent of the cleanup costs, according to Monares.

"The work of developing and building plants has made significant progress and now the real work of decades of cleanup begins, which requires long- term funding," said Grace Burgess, executive director of the San Gabriel Basin Water Authority. "And the state hasn't stepped up to the plate."

If Sacramento doesn't up the ante, local agencies, which have so far covered 4 percent of the cleanup bill, will have to pay more - and pass the costs to the consumers, Monares said.

"In cities such as Monterey Park, which have had to build their own treatment plants while they waited for the settlements, it could double or even triple residents' water bills," Monares said.

And the contamination has not been limited to the San Gabriel Basin. A contamination plume in the Whittier Narrows Recreation Area has spread south to the Central Basin, which provides water for 2.4million people, including residents of Whittier, Pico Rivera and Santa Fe Springs. The Central Basin Municipal Water District has had to build a treatment plant in Pico Rivera to the tune of $10 million to remove VOCs from its water supply, General Manager Art Aguilar said.

"It costs a little over $1 million a year to operate, and so far it has been coming from federal money," said Aguilar, adding the $10 million in construction costs have also come from the federal government. "But it is up in the air as to how much we will get in the future, and we will be pumping for a few more years at least, depending on testing results."

To the northwest, in Pasadena, progress on cleaning up a perchlorate hot spot originating from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory campus is also progressing, with NASA footing the $117million bill.

A treatment plant has been built in Altadena at the Lincoln Avenue Water Co. and another on the JPL campus. Both facilities have been operating for a combined three years, removing perchlorate that was buried underground when the site was an Army rocket testing facility in the 1950s.

A third treatment plant being built near Arroyo Seco in cooperation with the city of Pasadena should be online by summer 2008, said Steve Slaten, JPL's groundwater cleanup project manager.

"With the cooperative partnership agreements we have with Lincoln Avenue Water Co. and the city of Pasadena to treat the leading edge and middle of the plume, as well as onsite treatment at JPL, we have a holistic treatment that will be capable of cleaning up the groundwater," said Slaten, adding that the process will take an estimated 18 to 20 years.

Cleaning up the San Gabriel Valley's water would benefit not only local residents, but millions more living throughout Southern California, said Monares of the Water Quality Authority.

"Studies have shown that a major earthquake on the San Andreas Fault could knock out the Colorado River supply for six months, and water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River delta for up to 11 months," he said. "The Metropolitan Water District's Diamond Valley Lake's emergency supply of 800,000 acre-feet of water would last only six months."

An acre-foot is equivalent to 326,000 gallons of water.

The San Gabriel Basin has the capacity to store up to 400,000 acre-feet of water for emergency use. But that potential can only be reached once the full cleanup of this valuable resource is ensured.

fred.ortega@sgvn.com

(626) 962-8811, Ext. 2306