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The ethics of water ownership

Environmentally Speaking

Posted: April 17, 2008 8:09 p.m.
Updated: June 18, 2008 5:02 a.m.
 
In 2003 a Superior Court judge ruled for Newhall Land, now Lennar Corporation, thus allowing the Newhall Ranch Specific Plan. He made this ruling based on the assertion that the developer had purchased water from elsewhere in the state to supply these housing units and that together with the ground water used for farming, there would be a sufficient supply to serve this 21,000-unit proposal.

What he didn't look at was whether there is a sufficient supply for existing residents together with all the additional houses that have already been approved but are not yet built - some 30,000 units!

Those approvals cannot be taken back. As they are built, they will draw from our water supply.

He didn't look at these issues because the law apparently didn't require him to make sure there was enough water for existing residents and businesses before approving a specific plan. According to the county, this analysis must wait until tract maps are proposed.

With the first phases of Newhall Ranch now before the supervisors and the stringent requirements of the new "Show me the Water" legislation (SB610 and SB221), the county now must take another look at water supply for the Santa Clarita Valley.

The 2003 decision ignored or pre-dated many of our current water supply issues. For example, the judge did not consider the contamination of our ground water by ammonium perchlorate, the rocket fuel that has seeped into our drinking water supply from the Whittaker Bermite facility. This contaminant affects the thyroid gland, reducing its function. Recent studies have shown that reduced thyroid function causes retardation in fetuses and small children.

The water agencies, including the Valencia Water Co., which is owned by Newhall Land and Farming (and now by Lennar Corp.) told the county that this pollution would not create a water supply problem in spite of having to close several wells. At the time, Valencia Water testified that it voluntarily closed its polluted well and could re-open it and serve "blended water" at any time, so production was not really lost. Thus,  Valencia Water ensured that it would at least appear that an adequate water supply existed
for Newhall Ranch.

Such testimony on behalf of a water company that is owned by the very large and powerful developer whose projects it will supply is the very reason that the public should be concerned about private ownership of water resources and water companies.

The new "Show Me the Water" laws passed by our state legislators depend on a fair and honest analysis of water supply by the water company. Will this analysis be fair and honest when the developer owns the water company? Will the water company manager report a lack of supply or a pollution problem
that could affect approval of a proposed development when his very job is controlled by the developer of that project?

The public will probably realize that a privately owned water company, especially one owned by a large developer such as Newhall Land or Lennar Corp., could potentially make decisions that are based on ensuring profits for the parent developer company or other corporation at the expense of the
community. Water pollution problems or other potential shortages may not be completely disclosed to city and county planners in an effort to minimize obstacles to approval of those development projects. Water supplies may be over-stated so that development projects appear to have enough water and
development approvals can be obtained.

Recent court decisions in Sacramento reduced state water supply by 65 percent last year in an effort to protect an endangered fish from over-pumping. That reduction remains in effect. Now, throughout the
Northwest, salmon fishing has been prohibited due to severely reduced fish populations. According to scientists, the most probable cause of this population crash is over-pumping of water in the rivers that eliminates the salmon's spawning grounds. Water agencies throughout the state are also grappling with reductions in supply predicted as a result of global warming.

Such water reductions must now be considered before approving the Newhall Ranch tracts. Have these issues been adequately disclosed to our decision-makers?

Here is one last ethical question regarding private water sources.

Newhall Land has purchased water from the Kern River in Kern County to use only in its Newhall Ranch project, so that its 21,000-unit project can be built. But what if the pollution in the Saugus Aquifer continues to spread and more wells have to be closed down? What if the current water reductions
become permanent due to climate change?

We could hypothetically have a situation where new houses are built in Newhall Ranch while existing residents are being rationed because of cutbacks in supply from closed wells or statewide reductions.

When water is a public resource, controlled by public agencies for the best interests of the community as a whole, water supplies would of course not be used to build new houses while rationing existing residents and businesses or forcing those residents to drink "blended" polluted water. This is a question beyond financial gain.

It is a question of to whom and how this precious public resource will be allocated. It is time to begin a public debate of this issue.

Lynne Plambeck is president of the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment and a Santa Clarita resident. Her column reflects her own view and not necessarily that of The Signal.

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