Water Fight Gets Hot Over Use of Softeners, Reclamation


The multimillion-dollar water-softening industry has been making waves this summer for local water authorities by pushing for a bill that opponents say could hamper state water reclamation efforts.

Local water agencies prohibit the use of automatic water softeners in many communities including Rancho Penasquitos, La Mesa, Otay Mesa, Santee, Poway and El Cajon because they dump large amounts of dissolved solids--mainly salt--into sewer systems, according to local water officials. Excessive amounts of dissolved solids make waste-water difficult and expensive to reclaim for agriculture use.

Water softener interests do not deny a role in the water reclamation problem, but some say they are unfairly singled out while other contributors go unregulated. They note that a wide variety of concerns--from dry cleaners and silicon chip manufacturers to hospitals and radiator shops--dump significant amounts of dissolved solids into the waste-water system.

The dispute is a classic case of conservation efforts bumping heads with an industry insisting that large numbers of jobs are at stake.


The bill promoted by the water softeners industry, SB 2688, cleared the Senate June 14 by a large margin and is awaiting action in the state Assembly Parks and Wildlife Committee. If passed, it would limit the ability of local water agencies to control the use of automatic water softeners.

The timing of the bill is a defensive measure by the water-softening industry in response to increased efforts by local water authorities statewide to restrict the systems. The water authorities see the softeners--and the high quantities of dissolved solids they produce--as an impediment to water reclamation.

Water with a high content of dissolved solids can damage crops and thus must be treated, an expensive process. In some cases, reclamation efforts have to be abandoned, said Peter MacLaggan, water reclamation director for the San Diego County Water Authority.

According to studies done by county water officials, the average home without an automatic water softener discharges waste water with about 800 milligrams of total dissolved solids (TDS) per liter, MacLaggan said. In homes with water softeners, the level of TDS usually exceeds 1,000 milligrams per liter, a level that is intolerable to many crops.


Hit hard by the statewide drought and increased water demand, the county water district has set a goal of reclaiming 12% of its waste water for agriculture by the year 2010. The county now reclaims only about 1% of its water.

SB 2688 would “severely hamper that goal,” said MacLaggan, who described the water-softening industry as “a special interest group asking for special regulations. . . . The water industry with this legislation is trying to tie the hands of local water agencies.”

For its part, the water-softening industry says the bill is designed to ensure fair treatment for its members.

“We want local water agencies . . . to see other contributors to the problem,” said Patrick Dalee, president of the Pacific Water Quality Assn. which represents the state’s 500 water-softener dealers. “Because we are easily identifiable, we have been discriminated against.”

Statistics are scarce on the prevalance of water softeners, but more studies will be done as the county steps up its efforts to increase water reclamation, MacLaggan said. But one of the few studies done was in 1989 by the San Diego County Water Authority, which polled a representative sample of 6,731 homes in the Rancho Bernardo area and found that 40% had water softeners.

Some dealers have complained that, if local authorities continue to restrict their use, their businesses will suffer or even fold.

In areas where automatic water softeners are prohibited, homeowners can use an exchange program, which holds the concentrated brine by-product in rented tanks that can be hauled away and flushed elsewhere.

The drawback to exchange programs is that they cost an average homeowner about $20 a month, while automatic softeners cost only a few dollars a month, said Trenton Huls, co-owner of Culligan Water Conditioning of San Diego. Many customers are not willing to shoulder the added cost of the exchange systems, he said.


Another problem is that adding exchange programs could cost dealers as much as $500,000 for the necessary trucks and recharging facilities, a financial burden that could force many of them out of business, Huls said.

Howard Geschwind, owner of All-Rite Water Refining in Chula Vista, said he is one of those small-scale dealers that would have to look for a different line of work if local water authorities squeeze out the sales of automatic units in favor of exchange programs.

“I wouldn’t do it,” he said. “That would be too expensive. I would go out of business.”

The county’s MacLaggan disputes the industry’s contention that it is being unfairly singled out. Major contributors of dissolved solids such as hospitals, electronics manufacturers, radiator shops and print shops must get discharge permits, he said. Local agencies monitor the 5,000 permit holders in the county, and many of them must treat their own waste water--often with exchange programs--before discharging it into sewers, MacLaggan said.

Water softeners have become common, particularly in California’s Southern Coastal Plains where most of the water used is imported over long distances through canals and pipelines, said water resource specialist Dana Friehauf of the county water authority.

The Colorado River, the source of most imported San Diego water, is mostly mountain runoff that is high in minerals, Friehauf said. Evaporation during transportation increases the concentration of minerals, mainly calcium and magnesium, she said.

The result is some of the “hardest” water in the state, which tends to leave spots on dishes when they are washed, and sometimes requires more detergents than soft water to get clothes clean. Water softeners remove the minerals in a chemical ionization process, where two molecules of salt replace one molecule of calcium or magnesium. The lobbying has “been strong on both sides,” said state Sen. Don Rogers (R-Bakersfield), who introduced the bill at the request of the water-softening industry. “Both sides have done a good job in their lobbying efforts.”

“It’s important to (the water-softening industry) because, without this bill, they say they can be very restricted in many different parts of the state from selling water softeners to residential homeowners,” Rogers said. “I think their bill is very fair.”


A committee hearing on the bill is scheduled for early August, and legislators will have to act fast to pass it before the end of August when this legislative session ends.

“We’re hoping that logic will prevail on this one,” MacLaggan said. “It’s a bad piece of legislation.”