By importing water from at least three sources, the largest housing subdivision ever processed by Los Angeles County could actually enhance the health of the wild river that splits the project site, according to proponents. Opponents of Newhall Ranch, however, see the proposed 12,000-acre development as a threat to the Santa Clara River, the region's last undammed river, and to Ventura County farmers and urban water customers. No matter who is right, Newhall Ranch is being closely watched statewide by people who want to see more thorough studies of water sources before major developments receive approval. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in late November signaled its intent to approve a specific plan, general plan amendment, zoning changes, and a conditional use permit for Newhall Ranch, near Magic Mountain in northwest Los Angeles County. The proposal, from Newhall Land & Farming Co., calls for 21,600 homes and 1,000 acres of commercial, industrial and mixed-used development on both sides of Highway 126 just east of the Ventura County line. Newhall hopes to build the community for about 60,000 people over 25 years. Ventura County leaders have a number of gripes with the project, especially its potential use of groundwater. If Newhall Ranch drinks up liquid from underground, Ventura County citrus farmers will have less to pump and the Oxnard aquifer, which serves existing urban areas, will suffer, said Ventura County Supervisor John Flynn. "Our basic water supply is threatened by this project,'' charged Flynn, a leading project opponent. "I have not seen any proof of water they may have for their project except for groundwater." Nonsense, counters Newhall Ranch Senior Vice President Jim Harter. The environmental impact report, which is receiving a final touch-up, clearly identifies where the project will derive its water, he said. Newhall Ranch may import water from elsewhere in California, exercise a contractual right to tap nearby Castaic Lake, or buy from the State Water Project, Harter said. The completed project will need approximately 18,000 acre feet of water. Newhall Ranch does not need groundwater, Harter asserted. "That's a totally false assumption. It's only political rhetoric,'' advanced by Ventura County officials who want to stop the project, he said. Moreover, CH2M Hill has examined water practices in the Santa Clarita Valley and determined a perennial safe yield of the aquifer. No one suggests pumping beyond that safe yield, Harter said. In fact, he said, bringing more water into the area would add to the aquifer and Santa Clara River. When homeowners water their yards, some of the imported water will run off into the river and some will trickle into the aquifer, he said. "The water practices in the Santa Clarita Valley actually benefit Ventura County," Harter asserted. That position is a tough sell to Ventura County politicians, farmers and environmentalists who have lined up in opposition to Newhall Ranch. They contend Newhall has not adequately identified its water source and fear once the project gets going, groundwater will be the easiest source. Newhall Ranch is "very, very similar" to the Diablo Grande resort project in Stanislaus County, said Susan Brandt-Hawley, an attorney for Stanislaus Natural Heritage Project. Brandt-Hawley successfully challenged the Diablo Grande EIR on grounds that it deferred a decision on how the project would get water. Diablo Grande was first proposed during the early 1990s as a high-end resort consisting of 5,000 housing units, a hotel and conference center, golf course and other resort amenities on 30,000 acres in the usually parched mountains west of Interstate 5. The county-approved EIR required only that Diablo Grande identify a long-term water supply to move beyond a "five-year buildout," which comprised mostly roads and golf courses. However, the Fifth District Court of Appeal in 1996 said postponing "any analysis whatsoever of the impacts of supplying water to this project until after the adoption of the specific plan calling for the project to be built would appear to be putting the cart before the horse." [Stanislaus Natural Heritage Project v. County of Stanislaus, 49 Cal.App.4th 727.] The court said decision-makers must know the sources of water -- and impacts of using that water -- when approving a proposed development, Brandt-Hawley said. "They need to do more than defer and give a general laundry list of where they are going to get it," Brandt-Hawley said. The laundry-list approach does not tell the Board of Supervisors of impacts or provide them with options for a smaller project, she said. Randele Kanouse, an East Bay Municipal Utility District lobbyist who argues for stronger analyses of development's water sources, said builders should not be allowed to rely on the State Water Project. "The State Water Project has existing contracts to deliver 4.2 million acres feet of water a year, and the most it has ever delivered is 2.4 million acre feet," he said. Kanouse had not looked at the Newhall Ranch EIR recently but said his earlier review left him with many questions. Environmental impact reports almost never consider water sources during three- to five-year stretches of drought, which are common in California, he said. Ron Bottorff, president of Friends of the Santa Clara River, said Los Angeles County supervisors are not considering Newhall Ranch's impacts. "I don't see how we can keep approving vast development plans without identifying sources of water for them," he said. "I don't think they (Newhall Ranch) can get enough water in extreme drought years without over-pumping the aquifer." Such pumping would damage the underground portion of the river, he said. But Harter, the Newhall Ranch executive, said environmentalists have sounded a false alarm. "We don't need water at this stage because this is a general plan amendment and zone change," Harter said. Newhall must prove it has a stable water supply when it presents tract maps to the county for approval. The specific plan, EIR, and general plan amendment all contain safeguards to ensure Newhall Ranch does not result in a net loss of groundwater, he said. Experts have provided enough information about water sources and related impacts to satisfy the California Environmental Quality Act, he said. "Ventura County's concerns have been very adequately addressed by Los Angeles County," Harter said. Brandt-Hawley, however, said it is too late to study the water issue after the county approves the general plan amendment and rezoning because the project is assured at that point. "You are supposed to look at the bottom line first," she said. Los Angeles County officials never looked at the bottom line from Ventura County's perspective, said Flynn, the Ventura County supervisor. "Those people didn't give one inch. The same issues exist today as when the (draft) EIR was completed," he said. Flynn is convinced Newhall Ranch will turn to groundwater during drought years, which could prevent the underground river from going over a rock formation and into a vital agricultural valley. Los Angeles County officials expect to give Newhall Ranch final approval early this year. Newhall has started market research for the first phase of development and intends to begin building in 2001, Harter said. While Los Angeles County formalizes its approval, Ventura County supervisors, who are not unanimous in opposition to Newhall Ranch, continue to talk with their attorneys about a lawsuit, Flynn said. Supervisors also are talking with environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the Environmental Defense Center. "It could be a definite issue for the future of agriculture in the state of California," he said. Bottorff, from friends of the Santa Clara River, suggested Ventura County will get a friendly reception from environmental groups such as his, which serves as an umbrella organization for the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment and others. Both Flynn and Bottorff contend Newhall wields too much political influence. Newhall, which owns 93,000 acres, including 7,000 acres in Ventura County contiguous to Newhall Ranch, gets what it wants from Los Angeles County and the state, Bottorff said. Dave Van Atta, planning deputy for L.A. County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who represents the area, said the county would not hesitate to reject a specific Newhall Ranch subdivision if the company does not have a permanent water supply nailed down. To do otherwise would violate the county's development monitoring system, he said - adding that a violation of the system would increase the likelihood of a successful lawsuit from Ventura County and citizen activist groups in the area. Contacts: Jim Harter, senior vice president, Newhall Ranch, (805) 255-4000. John Flynn, supervisor, Ventura County, (805) 487-6331. Ron Bottorff, president, Friends of the Santa Clara River, (805) 498-4323. Randele Kanouse, lobbyist, East Bay Municipal Utility District, (916) 443-6948.