Lynne Plambeck: Would a Water Agency Ever Say There Isn’t Enough Water?

The Signal reported (June 14) that yet another mega-development, Tapia Ranch, would have plenty of water, according to the Santa Clarita Valley Water Agency. They assured the community that existing residents would continue to have adequate supplies.

As residents look around at graded hills and see headlines about tens of thousands of units of new development, we can’t help but wonder if this is true. Obviously there is not plenty of water because residential water use cuts continue to be required.

How do these water agencies determine that sufficient supplies for all of us really exist? Since 2001 when then-Sen. Sheila Kuehl’s SB 221, the landmark “Show me the Water” bill, passed the Legislature and became law in 2002, water agencies have been required to determine whether adequate supplies exist for any housing development over 500 units. Five hundred seems like a pretty large number of housing units, with the originally proposed 250 units being more reasonable. But at the time, that was the compromise made to get the bill passed.

The bill required that existing water supplies had to be evaluated against that needed by existing residents and by already approved, but not yet built, housing units. The water agencies’ habit of wistfully supposing that more water would come from here and there was not allowed. Only firm, proven groundwater supplies or water under contract could be used to make the newly required “water supply assessments.” 

So how is it that our water agency continues to come up with the conclusion that we have plenty of water?

The first answer is that 500-unit number. Just look at the number of approvals in our valley and see how many projects are proposed at 499 units or 497 units. Larger projects may be broken into phases, each of them just under 500 units. (This is not supposed to be legal, but it gets done anyway.)

Then there is the fungibility of “proven supplies.” For instance, can you count water that is polluted as available? In 2004 the Friends of the Santa Clara River sued Castaic Lake Water Agency on this very issue and won. The judge said that the agency must provide a timeline for cleanup before it could count these supplies. So CLWA provided a timeline and continued to count the polluted water. All was well for the water supply assessments. But not for the public, since the predictions didn’t quite turn out to be true. The pollution plume has continued to spread, closing additional wells throughout the valley, and production from the wells was reduced by the well-head treatment facilities.

Then there is the matter of how much groundwater is really available from our local aquifers. The water agency has reported for years that a substantial amount could be withdrawn, though in the case of the Saugus Formation, there were no wells to pump it. In the recent drought, a re-evaluation by an engineering firm found that previously predicted supplies from the Santa Clara River were not actually available during droughts.

So, it comes down to board oversight — board members asking questions, a rare phenomenon in all our local elected offices. Why? Just look at the 460 forms. When developers and building and engineering PACs get candidates elected, those candidates will probably not ask too many questions about whether there are adequate supplies for existing residents.

The last reason the water agency will probably always say that supplies are sufficient is because if they raise questions, as Newhall County Water District did over the Northlake project in 2005, the developer would sue them, as happened to this agency. For smaller agencies the financial impact of fighting this kind a lawsuit can be devastating. You will notice that, as the 3,000 unit Northlake project moves through the approval process, now, no questions regarding the adequacy of the water supply have come up.

Once the assessment is made by the water agency, there is no requirement for the city or county decision makers to take the water supply assessment into consideration, although certainly if a water agency ever said no, you would assume an agency would think twice about such an approval.

This system is obviously not working to ensure adequate water supplies for existing residents and protection for our water resources. It is time that our local water agencies represent the public interest by accurately disclosing our obvious supply problems. Only then will planning departments begin to require the needed stormwater capture and recycling infrastructure that will help ensure reliability in the future.

Lynne Plambeck is a member of the SCV Water Agency board of directors.

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