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Newhall Ranch Called Threat to Ground Water

Development: Critics say the proposed project could tax Ventura County supplies.

September 02, 1997|KATE FOLMAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Picture 70,000 newcomers moving to a swath of semiarid desert over the next quarter century. Make that 70,000 thirsty people--with showers to take, lawns to groom, pools to fill and cars, laundry and dishes to wash.

Those masses could be flocking to the behemoth Newhall Ranch project near Ventura County's northeastern flank. Quenching the residents' thirst will take a steady, heavy flow of water as the project is built in stages over 25 years.

But a growing number of critics on both sides of the county line insist that Newhall Ranch doesn't have--and will not be able to get--the water it needs. If approved, they fear, it will gulp down precious water that belongs to someone else.

As the proposed city of 24,351 dwellings along the Santa Clara River, just beyond Ventura County's border, wends its way through Los Angeles County's planning process, opponents believe a lack of reliable water sources should stop it. And fast.

Ventura County Supervisor Kathy Long is among them. She and her colleagues are considering a lawsuit to halt the project if a flood of water concerns isn't answered satisfactorily.

"My concern is the elusiveness of the Newhall Ranch water flow chart," said the supervisor whose district abuts the project. "There have been major wars fought over water. . . . And this [project] is certainly something that our board is concerned with."

Newhall Ranch's water plan relies on a mix of imported water from the State Water Project, creek flood flows and water recycling, but makes little mention of ground water.

"It looks like a bit of a shell game," said John Buse, a staff lawyer for the Environmental Defense Center in Ventura. "It's not unlike what a lot of developers say about water: We'll get it somewhere."

Newhall Land & Farming, the developer planning the city called Newhall Ranch, is well aware of the water concerns expressed by Ventura County officials, said spokeswoman Marlee Lauffer.

But the fears are baseless, she said.

"We are confident that the water will be there when we're ready to build Newhall Ranch," possibly as soon as the year 2000, she said. "When the time comes to pull building permits for the actual development, the county [of Los Angeles] has a safeguard in place to make sure the water is available."

As protection, each individual stage of the development must show water availability before building starts.

*

With a project of such sheer magnitude, assurances and building permit safeguards aren't good enough, though, say Ventura County supervisors, planners, environmentalists and the head of a neighboring water district.

Complicating matters is the location of the development--the most populous project of its kind in the history of both Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

Politically, the development is in Los Angeles County, somewhat shielded from Ventura County opponents by an arbitrary boundary drawn on maps.

But geographically, the Newhall Ranch development would stretch across the Santa Clara Valley, sharing ground water, air and a river with Ventura County's cities of Piru, Fillmore, Santa Paula and beyond.

As a result, critics worry what would happen in future droughts, if an instant suburb in the middle of parched lands is built on a shaky foundation of unreliable water.

They fret that Newhall Ranch could sap underground water reserves dry before they trickle downstream into Ventura County's aquifer system. And their fears are only exacerbated by Newhall Ranch's draft environmental impact report, which gives scant ink to effects the project could have on Ventura County.

So concerned are area government leaders and water experts that they have begun to lay a thick paper trail in preparation for legal battle.

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Ventura County officials answered Newhall Ranch's voluminous draft environmental impact report--whose volumes stacked on top of one other are as tall as a full-grown Afghan hound--with a 132-page response, plus attachments.

"Our concern is that they're not addressing the [project's] impacts to Ventura County," said county Senior Planner Scott Ellison, who worked on Ventura County's rebuttal to the document.

"They're not identifying the impacts; they're not mitigating the impacts--they're ignoring us," Ellison said. "Most of their analysis stops at the county line. . . . That's not permitted under state environmental law."

Los Angeles planners said they will answer those concerns--plus those raised by other groups--by the end of October.

By year's end, the Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission is expected to vote on the project's Specific Plan, according to planner Lee Stark.

Los Angeles County's Board of Supervisors could then begin public hearings on the plan, which covers 19 square miles and includes 10 new schools, a man-made lake and a golf course.

Newhall officials say the project is eco-friendly, setting aside vast stretches of open space and leaving the 100-mile-long Santa Clara River, Southern California's last free-flowing waterway, all but unscathed.

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