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Lynne Plambeck: The ethics of water ownership

Environmentally Speaking

Posted: August 19, 2009 8:42 p.m.
Updated: August 20, 2009 4:55 a.m.

In 2003, a Superior Court judge ruled for Newhall Land 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 this purchased water and the groundwater used for farming there would supply enough water to serve this 21,000-unit proposal.  

What the judge didn’t look at was whether there is a sufficient supply for existing residents plus all the additional houses approved but are not yet built, totaling some 30,000 units.

Those approvals cannot be taken back. The law apparently didn’t require the judge 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.

The 2003 decision ignored or pre-dated many of our current water supply issues. For example, Judge Randall did not consider the contamination of our groundwater by ammonium perchlorate, the rocket fuel that has seeped into our drinking water supply from the Whittiker-Bermite facility.

The water agencies, including the Valencia Water Co., owned by Newhall Land and Farming (and now by Lennar Corp.), told the county this pollution would not create a water-supply problem in spite of having to close several wells.

At the time, Valencia testified it could re-open its polluted well and serve “blended water” at any time, so production was not really lost. Thus, they ensured it would at least appear that an adequate water supply existed for Newhall Ranch.

Environmental groups argued for many years that the polluted water should not be counted as “available” for new development until the cleanup facilities were actually functioning. Now, some six years later, those facilities are still not built. And it turns out that, they will not be able to produce as much water as previously anticipated.

Federal-court decisions to protect fish endangered by too much pumping from the Sacramento River Delta were also not yet an issue in 2003. Nor was climate change in the Sierra Nevada that will likely reduce the snow pack that feeds the Delta, adding to our water woes.

Such testimony on behalf of a water company owned by the very large and powerful developer whose projects it will supply is one reason 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? Or will he consider the profits his parent company might lose?

Will over-pumping, water-pollution problems or other potential shortages be disclosed to city and county planners or downplayed in an effort to minimize obstacles to approval of those development projects?

One last question regarding private water sources. Newhall Land has purchased Kern River water to use only in their Newhall Ranch project. During a drought in which many localities are suffering severe shortages, Newhall has hoarded away 18,000 acre-feet for this new development.

Should other areas suffer while big developers such as Newhall or Tejon Ranch Cos. hoard water for future developments?

What if the pollution in the Saugus Aquifer continues to spread and more wells have to be closed? What if the cleanup facilities don’t work as planned? What if the current water reductions become permanent due to climate change?

We could have a situation where new houses are built in Newhall Ranch while water to existing residents is 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 of course would not be used to build new houses while rationing existing residents and businesses.

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 public debate of this issue.

Lynne Plambeck is president of the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment (SCOPE) and a Santa Clarita resident. Her column reflects her own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. “Environmentally Speaking” appears Thursdays in The Signal and rotates among local environmentalists.



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