Lynne Plambeck & Stacy Fortner: Not so innocuous water bill

File photo taken in March 2012 of Highway 126 looking SW showing the Newhall Ranch property. Dan Watson/The Signal

Editor’s note: The following column was published July 27 and is copyrighted by the Sacramento Bee. Reprinted by permission.

Our fight against the Newhall Ranch development may qualify as historic. It is certainly epic. We’ve been called NIMBYs and sometimes worse.

And yet we’ve been vindicated by courts, including the California Supreme Court, which ruled in 2015 that the developer failed to adequately address the environmental impacts of its massive planned community in the foothills north of Los Angeles.

The environmental plan for the project has since been revised and the project OK’d by the county.

Now our fight has taken us to the California Legislature, where a bill that appears completely innocuous would allow the Newhall Land & Farming Co. to stick its wells into our aquifer and pump groundwater on a monumental scale.

This would solve the riddle of water for a new town of 60,000 people, seven public schools and a golf course in the farming heart of the Santa Clara River Valley.

It has been 20 years since Los Angeles County first approved the company’s plan to turn 12,000 acres along the Santa Clara River into the largest master-planned community in California history.

Since that vote, not a cubic yard of earth has been subdivided – due to our challenges. During the past 15 years, more than one judge has found that Newhall Land & Farming has underestimated the project’s effects on wildlife, including the steelhead that spawn downstream.

For now, the river and its riparian corridor remain the habitat of the endangered California condor, arroyo toad, unarmed threespine stickleback fish and the spineflower. The farm remains the farm.

The Newhall Company, a subsidiary of Lennar Homes/Five Point, is every bit as persistent as we are. And its pockets are a lot deeper.

It is reaching into those pockets to attempt to mitigate the project’s greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, the company is pushing new legislation, Senate Bill 634 by Sen. Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, which would secure the sources of water sufficient to serve 21,000 new households.

The bill works in Trojan Horse fashion. On paper, it accomplishes nothing more than a consolidation of water agencies scattered across the Santa Clarita Valley. It creates a new water agency called the Santa Clarita Water District. This super-agency would be able to act as a wholesaler of water from the State Water Project and a retailer of groundwater from the Santa Clarita Valley.

Nothing terribly alarming about that.

But the hidden reality is that Newhall Land & Farming needs surface water and groundwater to make its mega-development happen, and this bill will shore up those supplies. Here’s how:

The company has purchased the rights to a yearly 1,600 acre-feet of water from a Kern County farming family. It only needs to find a way to bring that water up and over the mountain into its taps.

The company also has access to 7,032 acre-feet of local groundwater that it pumps to grow its crops. Converting this water from agricultural use to suburban use is not a given, however. The company needs to be inside the jurisdiction of a water district to do so.

SB 634 would take care of these obstacles in one neat swoop.

The wheeling powers of the new super-agency would deliver the Kern County water to Newhall Ranch taps. The agency’s legal authority would then allow Newhall Ranch to continue pumping vast amounts of groundwater and convert the use from crops to houses.

Finally, the super-agency would be able to access water from the State Water Project and send it Newhall’s way.

The bill sits in the Assembly Appropriations Committee. We hope committee members are aware of the real intent of this legislation. It is not about neatening up water district boundaries. It’s about the water itself.

Lynne Plambeck is president of Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment, [email protected]. Stacy Fortner was a candidate in the last cycle for Castaic Lake Water Agency Board of Directors, [email protected].

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