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Lynne Plambeck: Keeping the law in the public interest

Environmentally Speaking

Posted: January 7, 2009 8:01 p.m.
Updated: January 8, 2009 4:30 a.m.
It is too bad the Castaic Lake Water Agency continues to rely on distortions and exaggerations to discuss the extensive environmental issues involving water supply in our valley.

This public relations strategy is one of the reasons why it is so difficult to resolve the serious problems we face without using the tool of public-interest litigation.

For example, in 1999 the Sierra Club had to sue to get Castaic Lake Water Agency to stop counting the polluted water as available for new development.

This would seem like a no-brainer, but it took an appellate court decision favorable to the Sierra Club to get this water agency to accurately disclose the ammonium perchlorate pollution in its Urban Water Management Plan.

This was, of course, not about "stopping growth," as some at Castaic Lake Water Agency would have our community believe.

Rather, it was about protecting existing residents.

The Sierra Club was concerned that failure to accurately disclose the extent of this pollution would leave
our community high and dry when the next drought occurred.

And so it has.

After literally almost a decade of promises that the water clean-up facilities would be on line and functioning "next year," those facilities are still not producing clean water.

Now we are in a drought and cannot access this polluted water because the clean-up facilities are still not completed.

At least Castaic Lake Water Agency was forced to disclose this in its Urban Water Management Plan so the council and the county would be aware of the problem when they approved new development.
Accurate and honest water-supply reporting has nothing to do with stopping growth.

It has everything to do with good planning.

If we want the best for our community in the future, planning decisions must be made based on facts that are fully disclosed.

Another issue is the state water transfer from northern California. Environmental groups asked that the EIR be completed for this huge statewide project before further transfers were made and became part of our community's water supply.

Now such issues as the collapse of the Delta ecosystem are facing all state water contractors. Because the unreliability of this water source was not disclosed in a completed EIR, planners again could not make the best and fully informed decisions for our community.

The California Environmental Quality Act is about disclosure and mitigation for impacts.

Mitigation requirements are the way the city and county protect existing residents against the impacts of new development.

When an impact is disclosed, it must be addressed and reduced to the maximum extent feasible. But if the impact is never disclosed, or the mitigation is illusory, then it cannot be addressed in the planning process.

The public planning process provides an opportunity for the community to bring up these important issues.
But if the council or supervisors continue to ignore obvious facts, perhaps as a result of campaign contributions or other pressures, the public has no choice but to file public-interest litigation on important issues to protect our valley.

The courts are the final step in the public process.

They exist for exactly this purpose: So the community has an opportunity to publicly air its grievances when it appears the law has been violated.

Without the court standing as the community's last resort, large companies would run roughshod over our public processes.

One other startling campaign strategy used by CLWA is the claim that it has spent more than $9 million defending public-interest litigation brought by environmentalists to ensure good public process.

For an agency that routinely over-spends on consultants and spends millions of dollars on increased change orders for projects whose cost was not accurately estimated, this enormous expenditure claim somehow doesn't surprise me.

But one has to wonder how in the world it could have spent so much?

Is anyone asking why they would have supposedly paid this enormous amount of money fighting environmental groups whose opinions are valued in other communities?

The environmental groups certainly did not have even a fraction of such large sums to bring their issues. Why did it cost CLWA so much?

Perhaps a member of the public should be asking such questions and might want to take a look at CLWA records to see just exactly on what this money was really spent. Public agencies need public oversight to
ensure that they preform in the public's interest.

Better oversight by the SEC would undoubtedly have turned up the recently revealed nationwide banking problems and the Madoff scandal. There are only two ways to ensure such oversight when it is not provided by regulatory agencies. The first is the court; the second is the electoral process.

So if such enormous funds have really been spent by CLWA, perhaps it is time for members of our community to run for this water board and see if there is a different way for them to do business.

Lynne Plambeck is president of the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment and a Santa Clarita resident. Her column reflects her own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. "Environmentally Speaking" appears Thursday in The Signal and rotates among local environmental writers.


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