The long-running Santa Clarita Valley growth war has entered a new phase. The Newhall County Water District (NCWD), which serves territory inside the Santa Clarita city limits and in unincorporated Los Angeles County, has issued a no-confidence vote for the valley’s urban water management plan.
Three members of the five-member NCWD board say the plan relies on water from the State Water Project that is unlikely to materialize, tainted groundwater, and "banked" groundwater that is uncertain.
"There is not sufficient current supply of water to meet all current and future demands, especially in times of drought or other emergency," states a resolution that NCWD directors adopted on January 29.
The response has been swift. The Santa Clarita City Council and area school boards adopted resolutions opposing the NCWD stance. The Castaic Lake Water Agency, which prepared the plan, is standing by the document. Developers are rushing to get water service contracts from NCWD before more-restrictive policies take effect.
"Many of us who are water activists have for years said Castaic is overstating the amount of water available from the State Water Project," said NCWD Board President Lynne Plambeck. "We don’t have enough water for all of this development."
But Santa Clarita Mayor Pro-Tem Cameron Smyth said NCWD tried to sneak through a new water policy with little public input. "It’s pretty clear that the action by the majority on the water district board is primarily political in nature," Smyth said. "It’s an attempt to use water to control growth."
Between 2,000 to 3,000 new housing units go up annually in the Santa Clarita Valley, which straddles Interstate 5 just north of Los Angeles. Millions of square feet of office, retail and industrial space has been built while the valley evolved into an employment center during recent years. Despite the development-friendly attitudes of both the city and county, growth battles have been intense and often have involved the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment (SCOPE). NCWD’s Plambeck is the longtime leader of SCOPE. Plambeck, who intends to run for Los Angeles County supervisor, has been a member of the water board since 1995, but until the November 2003 elections, she was in the minority. Now she controls a 3-2 majority.
State law requires all but the smallest urban water suppliers to prepare urban water management plans every five years. In 2000, the Castaic Lake Water Agency adopted the water plan for its 192-square-mile service area in the Santa Clarita Valley. Castaic is a water wholesaler, while NCWA and the private Santa Clarita Water Company and Valencia Water Company provide retail service. Los Angeles County Waterworks District 36 also serves lightly developed, unincorporated areas within Castaic’s boundaries.
All retailers except District 36 augment the water imported by Castaic with their own groundwater sources. Castaic and the retailers participated in preparing the 2000 plan and adopted the document. Only Plambeck and one Castaic board member voted against the plan.
The plan says existing and planned supplies amount to between 103,000 and 181,000 acre-feet of water during normal years. Usage is expected to grow from roughly 80,000 to 100,000 acre-feet annually by 2020. About half of the supply would come from the State Water Project, with local groundwater accounting for most of the rest. The plan says that even more water — as much as 280,000 acre-feet — would be available during dry years because Castaic could tap banked groundwater, and new wells could draw more local groundwater.
The Department of Water Resources accepted the Castaic plan. Most people have concluded that the state law is easy to comply with, and DWR has never rejected an urban water management plan, said Randy Kanouse, an East Bay Municipal Utility District lobbyist who helped draft recent water planning laws.
Still, Plambeck and growth opponents contend Castaic’s numbers are bogus. Perchlorate left over from heavy manufacturing has forced the closure of several supply wells, and no one has fully identified the pollution’s scope, she said. Thus, the plan should ratchet down the amount of available groundwater. Additionally, Plambeck said the plan should reduce the amount of SWP available by about half. Courts have accepted an estimation that the SWP can supply at least 50% of requested water in eight years out of ten. Other supplies and strategies identified in the plan — water banking, water transfers, desalination and large-scale water recycling — are too speculative, she said.
Gordon LaBedz, conservation chairman of the Southern California Sierra Club, said NCWD is right to question Castaic’s figures. That agency should worry more about serving existing homeowners, LaBedz said. "These guys are saying they have lots and lots of water, and it’s a lie," he said. "They are counting polluted water as potable water."
Castaic officials counter that the urban water management plan survived a lawsuit filed by Ventura County and Friends of the Santa Clara River. The suit is on appeal, but the county dropped out.
The NCWD resolution contains "serious errors and omissions," said Mary Lou Cotton, Castaic water resources manager. Technology exists to treat water tainted by perchlorate, and all valley purveyors plan to implement treatment, according to Castaic officials. As for SWP water, the long-term average of deliveries is 76% of entitlements — far more than NCWD counted, Castaic says. The agency is already banking wet-year water in the San Joaquin Valley and building recycled water delivery systems.
The sides have fought similar battles in the courtroom over specific projects. Most recently, a Kern County Superior Court judge found that Newhall Ranch — a 21,000-unit proposal — had enough water to proceed, but only after earlier rounds of the litigation forced the developer to procure new supplies and rewrite an EIR. Last year, an appeals court rejected an EIR for a different 2,500-unit project, saying that the development relied on uncertain SWP water.
Since passage of the NCWD resolution, developer Dale Donohoe, president of Intertex Companies, has finagled a NCWD water connection agreement for a small commercial project, but he finds a larger project in limbo. "I’ve got a $6 million land purchase. We’re supposed to close escrow right now, but we need an extension," said Donohoe, who still needs a guarantee of water service for the property.
"It puts everybody in an awkward position," Donohoe said of the NCWD stance. "It’s very hard to do any kind of planning when you have this hanging over your head."
Mayor Pro Tem Smyth said NCWD could block redevelopment of old Newhall, a planned community center, and new schools. Numerous school districts oppose the NCWD resolution, in part because the districts count on development fees. Plambeck disputed all of those charges.
Urban water management plans must be updated during 2005. Plambeck said NCWD might prepare its own plan rather than join a valley-wide water effort, which Castaic officials say would be a mistake.
Lynne Plambeck, Newhall County Water District, (661) 259-3610.
Cameron Smyth, City of Santa Clarita, (661) 255-4313.
Mary Lou Cotton, Castaic Lake Water Agency, (661) 297-1600.
Dale Donohoe, Intertex Companies, (661) 295-8215.
Newhall County Water District:www.ncwd.org
Castaic Lake Water Agency: www.clwa.org