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Lynne Plambeck: Overstating water supplies won't make it rain, people

Environmentally Speaking

Posted: January 13, 2010 9:05 p.m.
Updated: January 14, 2010 4:55 a.m.
State legislators have long seen an urgent need to provide adequate water supply information to planners. It was obvious to everyone that increased population in California would escalate pressure on the state's water resources.

So about seven years ago the state passed landmark legislation - the "show me the water" laws - requiring thorough disclosure of water supplies in the form of water supply assessments for all large development projects. They also updated requirements for disclosure in urban water management plans.

Even so, it took many years of insisting by local environmental groups that polluted water not be counted to force disclosure by local water agencies.

Groups demanded that treatment facilities to clean wells polluted with perchlorate should be actually functioning before additional development was approved based on those water supplies.

If a drought occurred, would water supplies be sufficient? Such a situation might force water agencies to serve blended polluted water to bring down the pollution levels in order to provide the Santa Clarita Valley with water.

It seemed like a logical precaution, but the water agencies didn't buy it. It took public-interest litigation by the Sierra Club and others to force them to disclose this in their urban water management plans.

Now the perfect storm is at hand. Thousands of new houses and a drought in California are stressing local supplies.

In spite of Castaic Lake Water Agency's September news conference proclaiming the start-up of the water treatment facilities, those facilities are still not functioning.

Last October, the water agency sent a carefully worded letter to Los Angeles County regarding water supplies for the substantially increased population proposed in One Valley, One Vision, and admitting the agency may indeed have a problem.

The water agency has asked the county to await the release of a state water reliability report before proceeding further with the One Valley, One Vision plan.

Valencia Water Co. routinely submits water supply assessments claiming there is an adequate water supply for the thousands of units proposed by its parent company, the Newhall Land and Farming Co. The Tejon-Castaic Water District, the board members of which are the same as those of Tejon Ranch, according to its Web site, provided similar water supply assessments for its huge developments, claiming adequate supplies in spite of obvious statewide water supply problems.

Why are water agencies so reticent to disclose water supply problems? In the case of Valencia Water Co. and Tejon-Castaic, the answer is obvious.

The very developers on whose projects they are reporting own both these water companies. A statement that in any way casts doubt on the adequacy of a project's water supply could kill a project, or at least hamper the development company's ability to get outside financing.

Would any general manager of a water company in that position want to risk his job by submitting an adverse report?

Whatever the reason, our planners and decision-makers are still not getting the best information about our water supplies. If our community is to avoid severe water cutbacks, such information is even more imperative now than ever before.

As the water agencies begin their urban water management planning process, we have a few suggestions.

First, water agencies that are wholly owned by the developer should not be allowed to provide a water supply assessment for that developer's projects. This situation creates an obvious conflict of interest that likely will result in the public and planners being deprived of an accurate water supply analysis.

Agencies should not be allowed to hire consultants to work on their plans when those consultants are also working for the major developers who have much to benefit or lose if those plans don't go their way.

This situation is already occurring in both the General Plan Update (One Valley, One Vision) and CLWA's proposed consultants for its 2010 urban water management plan.

At the very least, consultants should be required to disclose any such conflicts.

There is much we can do to address how our finite water supplies will be distributed in the face of a growing population.

But we cannot address these problems by pretending they do not exist. Our public agencies must truthfully and accurately disclose the real state of our water supplies.

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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