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Culligan lobbies for its life as water softeners become a drought issue

The company is fighting a state Assembly bill that would let regulators ban devices that discharge salt into municipal sewer lines, rendering water difficult to recycle.

June 26, 2009|Marc Lifsher

SACRAMENTO — Government bureaucrats want your water softener.

The Culligan Man is fighting back.

The company behind the renowned "Hey Culligan Man!" advertising campaign of the 1950s has launched a political and public relations offensive to kill a bill targeting its signature product.

That proposal would allow regulators to ban conventional water softeners that discharge salt into municipal sewer lines. The mineral makes it tough for sanitation districts to clean and reuse their sewage, which is an increasingly crucial source of irrigation water in drought-plagued California.

The bill pits giant Culligan International Co. and smaller water-softener manufacturers and their dealers against a broad coalition of interests that includes California cities, water districts, big farming groups, chicken ranchers and even the golfing industry.

"It's a water-quality issue," said Mike McCullough, the director of environment and water resources for the Northern California Golf Assn. "If you have better-quality recycled water, obviously the turf can respond accordingly."

But Culligan, based in Rosemont, Ill., contends that it's not to blame for California's water woes. It's portraying the legislation as a Big Government grab of private property.

It's "an unprecedented step to take something from your home that you legally purchased to better the quality of your life," said Culligan General Counsel Susan Bennett. The privately held firm, which does not divulge sales figures, is by far the largest player in the California market.

The industry is running ads, including a recent full page in the Sacramento Bee, showing a man in a business suit wielding a plumber's wrench and a briefcase, ostensibly to rip the water softener from the utility closet of a hapless homeowner.

"The Sacramento Politicians are at it again. They're back to try and take your water softener away," the ad warns ominously, directing readers to visit

Industry officials said they hoped the campaign would help customers avoid what happened to Vern Crawford, a retired Santa Clarita carpenter, who had to yank out his water softener after a local ordinance made it illegal.

"I do think it's a little unfair to target just the soft-water people," he said.


Dollars at stake

Water softening is a $500-million annual business in California. Units can cost about $2,300 plus periodic servicing. One in 10 Golden State homes, or an estimated 1 million households, have them.

The industry has made $117,000 in political campaign contributions since 2000. It gave $1,000 to one of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's committees in April 2008. The governor last year vetoed legislation seeking to regulate water softeners.

Proponents of the current bill aren't amused by the industry's cheeky campaign. They say decommissioning of existing units would be a last resort and that homeowners would be compensated. Consumers, they note, still have access to alternative water-softening systems that do not pollute rivers with salt.

"It's hyperbole. Clearly, it's a very reckless and irresponsible attempt to engender fear at the expense of . . . a very important issue," said Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles), the author of the legislation, AB 1366.

The matter has been bubbling for years as California finds it ever harder to satisfy the demands of thirsty cities, farmers and endangered fish species. Drought and climate change are reducing water supplies throughout the Southwest.

Water districts across California are under pressure to "recycle" sewage and runoff that they used to dispose of. The sanitized wastewater can be used for irrigation, groundwater recharge and even drinking water if the sewage is thoroughly cleaned.

But water treatment is expensive. Water softeners are adding to the burden.

The appliances remove the calcium and magnesium that cause much of the state's tap water to be "hard." Softening reduces the mineral scale that can clog pipes, damage water heaters and leave soap scum in showers and on glassware. Soft-water users say their skin feels smoother and their hair silkier.

Conventional softeners, however, flush the minerals from the tank using a salt- water solution. Statewide, those units annually discharge hundreds of thousands of pounds of salt into wastewater that must be treated at the expense of municipal utility ratepayers.

If Feuer's bill becomes law, California would be the first state in the country with a mechanism for banning water softeners on a mass scale.

Some communities have already imposed a ban. Faced with the prospect of higher sewer rates to build a new water treatment facility, residents of the Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District, which includes Santa Clarita, Valencia, Newhall and several other communities in northern Los Angeles County, voted last year to outlaw salt-discharging water softeners starting Jan. 1 of this year, with a six-month grace period to comply.

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