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Water Ample at Newhall Ranch, Lawyer Says

Housing: The developer says tapping an aquifer on the site would not drain ground water, as contended by opponents of the project.

March 04, 2000|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BAKERSFIELD — Ventura County's fight over Newhall Ranch intensified in court Friday, as the developer's lead attorney assured a judge that enough water is available to support one of the largest housing projects ever planned in California.

"This isn't a myth," said Newhall attorney Mark Dillon.

Standing before detailed charts and citing numerous studies on perhaps the most crucial issue facing the project, Dillon said creek flows, treated waste water and contracts with various water agencies will adequately serve the proposed 22,000 home suburb--even in drought years.

Dillon rejected arguments made in court this week by attorneys for Ventura County, several of its cities and environmental groups who contend Newhall Ranch will suck regional water reserves dry and threaten other natural resources.

Those issues are at the heart of four lawsuits against Newhall Ranch and Los Angeles County, which last year approved the massive housing project along the edge of eastern Ventura County, near Six Flags Magic Mountain.

For two days, lawyers have fought over the development's potential environmental impacts in hearings before Kern County Superior Court Judge Roger D. Randall. The case was moved to Kern County to avoid potential conflicts. The judge is expected to issue a written ruling on the lawsuits, which have been consolidated, in the coming weeks.

During Friday's hearing, Dillon attacked arguments made by Ventura County lawyers on the water issue. The county contends that Newhall's plan to tap a deep aquifer on the project site would indirectly drain surface ground water along the Santa Clara River.

That ground water serves citrus growers throughout the lush Santa Clara Valley as well as the cities of Fillmore, Santa Paula and Ventura, miles downstream, lawyers say.

But Dillon told the judge that Newhall's plan to dip into the Saugus Aquifer, which sits miles away under deep bedrock, would have no effect on ground water reserves neighboring Ventura County.

"Geography is obviously important," Dillon argued. "The claim is that we are somehow affecting the ground water in the alluvial aquifer 3 1/2 miles down in the Santa Clara River and 35 miles down in Ventura."

Not true, Dillon said, adding that the nearest city potentially impacted is Fillmore 15 miles downstream and surrounding farmlands.

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Ventura County officials have raised concerns about how the pumping of ground water might threaten that farmland. Agriculture remains the largest industry in Ventura County, funneling millions into the economy annually through lemon, strawberry and orange production.

In a rebuttal argument, Assistant County Counsel Antoinette Cordero told the judge the developer's claim that surface ground water would not be affected is false, though she didn't specifically discuss the potential effect on agriculture.

Cordero said there is "abundant evidence" that a hydraulic connection exists between the two aquifers in question. That connection, she said, hasn't been examined in the environmental impact report for the project.

"The counsel for Newhall conceded in dry years, the source of water to make up the shortfall . . . is ground water," Cordero said. "The impact of doing that simply has not been analyzed."

During his arguments, Dillon said Newhall plans to rely on three major water sources for the project: overflow from water rights to Castaic Creek, water purchased from the State Water Project and waste water recycled at a future treatment plant.

Between those three sources, water would be available for schools, future homes and recreational projects, such as an 18-hole golf course and a 15-acre lake.

Moreover, none of the project's five subdivisions, which would be built out over the next 25 years, would go forward without timely assurances of water availability. "Every year we are going to know what condition we are in," Dillon said. "This EIR didn't put its head in the sand. This EIR analyzed . . . a very important drought scenario."

But Cordero argued that the State Water Project is an iffy source.

"What is in the record is that the State Water Project is tapped by numerous sources and is only 50% reliable," Cordero said. "The point is, your honor, that there will be additional water needed."

Newhall's proposed development would draw an estimated 60,000 to 70,000 new residents to subdivisions nestled in a hilly 19-square-mile area located about 30 miles north of Los Angeles. In some parts, the development would straddle the Santa Clara River, one of the last wild rivers in the state.

During rebuttal arguments Friday, an attorney representing environmental groups opposed to the project argued that the developers have failed to adequately examine the potential damages to the pristine river valley and its habitat, which includes several protected and endangered species.

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