Lynne Plambeck | Updated Water Supply Info Needed

As CO2 levels rise more rapidly than predicted, we need to re-assess infrastructure needs, from sewage plants and roads located along the coasts as the sea level rises, to our water supply and delivery system. 

“Infrastructure” might sound like a boring word, but it won’t be so boring to any of us if water doesn’t come out of the tap or untreated sewage is spilled into our bays, polluting the fish we eat, not to mention what it would do to sea life and birds.

Our country has long been blessed for the most part with adequate food and water supplies, though certain areas experience problems due to economic inequities. 

So the kind of water shortages that have occurred in Capetown, South Africa, or Australia during their last severe droughts seem distant and unreal to us. 

But in 2000 and again in 2014, we did realize that California’s increasing population and diminishing water supply were on a collision course. In 2000, the state Legislature passed the “show me the water” laws,  Assembly Bill 221 and SB 610, which required water supply assessments for housing projects over 500 units and verification letters before sales in those projects could begin. 

In 2014, realizing that our groundwater basins were being pumped unsustainably throughout California, the Legislature passed the Ground Water Sustainability Act. They were concerned that our basins were being pumped way beyond capacity, potentially resulting in diminishing recharge ability and loss of this important supply.

Then we had the “housing crisis” and all thoughts of being able to supply those new houses with water seem to have gone out the window.

The “Show me the Water Laws,” which went into effect in 2001, were flawed from the outset. Developers immediately reduced their project size to 497 units to avoid having to get a water supply assessment, and water agencies, when they prepared them, seemed to worry about admitting there might be insufficient supplies out of fear they would be sued by the developer. (See signalscv.com/2018/06/lynne-plambeck-would-a-water-agency-ever-say-there-isnt-enough-water/.) 

It also seems pretty obvious that no one in the Department of Real Estate would ever refuse to issue a water verification letter to a fully built project (in accordance with AB221), especially when there is no public oversight to demand an informed decision.

But at least it was a start. At least water agencies and decision makers have to take a close look at very large projects like Newhall Ranch. At least hopefully our water agencies and the county and city planners are making sure our water supply is adequate.

Or are they? In the last drought with reduced water coming from Northern California, and some reserves from the Kern Basin turning out to be unavailable, we heavily pumped our groundwater to supply our community. This caused a massive drop in our water table. 

As the water table dropped, many municipal wells stopped producing water. Trees that had survived hundreds of years of drought cycles, died (just take a look at the dead valley oaks along Interstate 5).

This scenario will happen again, only it will be worse the next time. 

As California’s climate continues to heat up, models show that less and less snowpack on the average will be available from the Northern Sierras, and less rain will fall in our area to recharge our own river and groundwater basins. But we may have a vastly increased population to supply.

And this is not to mention recent municipal water well closures from new pollutants like PFAS and volatile organic compounds in our area that have recently been in the news. These additional well closures in our community make updated water supply assessments all the more critical to ensure we can supply our existing population with a healthy, safe and sufficient water supply before approving new development.  

Yet our decision makers seem to have ignored this stark reality in their rush to approve new housing. 

Yes, housing is needed, but we cannot provide the needed infrastructure, including water supply, without very careful planning.

So it was startling when in 2017, the county Board of Supervisors reapproved the first 6,000 units of the Newhall Ranch project without an updated water supply assessment, even when such an assessment has been required by law since 2001. 

Both the city and the county seem oblivious to the hard wall we are facing on this vital infrastructure need.  

In the face of water supply reductions in a warming climate, we must follow the law and update water availability for new projects so that we can make informed decisions to ensure the well-being of our community.

Lynne Plambeck is president of the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment (SCOPE).

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