Sacramento — The Water Quality Association anxiously is awaiting the outcome of an assembly bill here that would allow individual municipalities to decide whether to restrict the use of residential water softeners.

The bill, AB 2270, would allow any local agency that operates a sewer system to “control salinity inputs, including inputs from water softeners.” Such action, however, would require a finding by the State Water Resources Control Board or a regional water quality control board that controlling residential salinity would help meet water quality standards.

The WQA, which vehemently opposes the bill, argues that it gives unelected water boards the power to decide whether towns can ban softeners. WQA Executive Director Peter Censky added that the vast majority of salinity in the ground in California results from growth and other processes.

“(The bill) is totally unfair to consumers who own water softeners because most of the salinity comes from agriculture and commercial and industrial uses,” he said.

Steve Lehtonen, executive director of the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors of California, said state officials are considering the measure as part of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's overall water usage plan for the state through the year 2020.

“They're basically expanding the ability of cities and counties to regulate water softeners,” he said.

Lehtonen pointed out that the bill does give local agencies discretion over how to control salinity. An outright ban on water softeners is only one option in the bill.

According to the bill, agencies would be able to require the highest efficiency, commercially available, self-regenerating residential water softeners. In addition, they could require plumbing permits before installation of water softeners or water softeners only hooked up to hot water.

If an agency decided to order the removal of previously installed residential water softeners, it would need to compensate owners, the bill states.

Lehtonen, who also is director of Green Plumbers USA, said groups such as Green Plumbers support increased conservation and efficiency without affecting the quality of life for consumers.

“I think we're getting to the time where there are water conditioning devices that don't require as much salt,” he said. “Our position would be that we would work with the manufacturers of these conditioning systems to get there.

“In a sense, (state legislators) are calling the manufacturers' bluff a little bit by saying there are things that can be done.”

Censky did say modern water softeners have come a long way over the years.

“The older water softeners were real water hogs, but all the new water softeners are extremely efficient,” he said. “We've been working through a series of bills that have caused us to raise the efficiency of this equipment as an industry through standards, thereby reducing water and salt use dramatically,” he said.

Censky said outright bans on water softeners, however, would have a dramatic financial impact on consumers.

He argued that without water softeners, water heaters will not last as long, pipes will accumulate lime scale, plumbing fixtures will corrode more rapidly and dishwashers and clothes washers will lose their effective life.

“It takes about 29% more energy to produce hot water in a water heater that is scaling than one with a water softener,” he said.

If the bill makes it to Schwarzenegger's desk and he signs it, Lehtonen said the industry deserves ample time to adjust.

“I hate to see all of the industry on one side and all of the water agencies on the other, but this is coming because we're at a critical time,” he said. “I think a good approach would be to say we have to do this but allow time for industry to respond.”