Our community’s fight against the Newhall Ranch development may qualify as historic. It is certainly epic. Along the way, we’ve been called NIMBYs and sometimes worse.

And yet we’ve been vindicated time and again by the 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.

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

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

It’s been twenty 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, not a house has been built, because of our challenges. Over 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 salmon that breed downstream.

Santa Clara River downstream of Newhall Ranch after a rainstorm

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

But the Newhall Company, which is now a wholly owned 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 finally attempt to mitigate the project’s greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, the company is pushing new legislation, SB 634 that will secure the sources of water it needs to serve 21,000 new households.

The bill works in classic “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 that will be able to act as both 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 desperately needs surface water and groundwater to make their 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 wealthy 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 water that it currently pumps out of the ground 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 takes care of these obstacles in one neat swoop.

The wheeling powers of the new super agency will deliver the Kern water to the taps of Newhall Ranch. The agency’s legal authority will then allow Newhall Ranch to continue pumping vast amounts of groundwater and convert the use from crops to houses. Finally, the super agency will be able to access water from the State Water Project and send it Newhall’s way.

The bill will be heard next by the Appropriations committee in August. We are hoping 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 and Stacy Fortner

(Published in the Sacramento Bee 7/27/17)

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