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Study Finds Water Supply Adequate for Housing Plan

Newhall Ranch: The court-mandated review also shows development would have little effect on Ventura County traffic. Foes call results flawed.

April 20, 2001|CAROL CHAMBERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A court-ordered study released Thursday finds there is ample water to meet the needs of the 21,600-home Newhall Ranch, the largest housing development proposed in Los Angeles County and opposed by Ventura County and environmentalists.

The eight-month study included more than 30 tests and found the project would have little or no effect on wildlife corridors and would have insignificant impact on traffic in Ventura County--all key issues used nearly a year ago to block progress on the 12,000-acre project in the Santa Clarita Valley, near Magic Mountain, just east of Ventura County.

The study was ordered in a June 2000 ruling by Kern County Superior Court Judge Roger D. Randall after Ventura County and environmental groups filed suit, temporarily blocking the development. The order required Newhall Land & Farming Co. to prove it could obtain enough water from the State Water Project and an underground aquifer for the 60,000 new residents.

The study, commissioned by Newhall Land, included reviews of traffic impact on Ventura County, based on a Ventura County Traffic Model, which was not available when the final environmental impact report was completed. Under the model, the study states Newhall Ranch would create less than a 1% increase on arterial highways, an amount deemed insignificant under state guidelines.

In addition to water availability, traffic and impacts to Salt Creek and other wildlife corridors, Randall ordered the developer to study relocation of a water reclamation plant and examine what effects the changes to the Santa Clara River flood plain would have on sensitive habitats.

"One of the many claims was that it would impact the Santa Clara River all the way down to Ventura," said Mark Subbotin, a Newhall Land senior vice president for planning. "A significant change is it would have no impact. The project maintains the natural habitat. What you see out there today--cottonwoods, willows--you will still see after development."

Newhall Ranch opponents, however, said the study was flawed, and were particularly incredulous over Newhall's assertion the development could be beneficial.

"The best way to take care of a river is to . . . leave it alone," said Ron Bottorff, chairman of Friends of the Santa Clara River. "You can't improve on nature."

Flynn Questions Water Projections

Bottorff said the project, which surrounds part of the river, could damage endangered species and other wildlife because of possible increased river speeds and hardening of the banks. He said his group would hire its own hydrologist and biologist for its own study.

Bottorff said he did not believe Newhall Land's plan to save surplus rainwater for dry years would work, because he doesn't believe adequate storage exists.

Ventura County Supervisor John Flynn also questioned Newhall Land's belief it would have enough water, saying the developer is relying on future supplies of state water that are not reliable estimates.

He cited a recent water plan by the Castaic Lake Water Agency--which supplies the Santa Clarita Valley and would serve Newhall Ranch--saying that agency overestimated its resources and underestimated future demand.

"I think we're flirting with a dangerous situation by letting Newhall believe it has enough water," Flynn said. "I just think they're way off base."

Release of the studies signals the start of a 60-day public review period.

Newhall Land officials said Thursday they have taken steps to ensure a water supply, including purchase of two new water sources and extensive tests of underground storage systems.

The developer struck an agreement with landowners in Kern County for 7,648 acre-feet per year in State Water Project entitlements, said Steve Zimmer, vice president of Newhall Land.

"We also purchased water storage capacity near the town of Wasco [northwest of Bakersfield]," Zimmer said. "In normal and wet years, we can store water there. In dry years, we can call upon it."

The Wasco site would provide 55,000 acre-feet of ground water banking capacity, including the ability to use up to 4,950 acre-feet annually of water in dry years, purchased from the Semitropic Groundwater Storage District. Zimmer said at its build-out in 25 to 30 years, Newhall Ranch would require 17,680 acre-feet of water per year.

Company officials also said millions of gallons of water were injected into the Saugus aquifer, the historic source for ranch water supplies. That storage system could be used to stash surplus water supplies that could be retrieved during droughts to partly meet the needs of the new community.

"We have successfully proven we can use the Saugus aquifer for ground-water banking," Subbotin said.

Newhall Land officials lauded the conclusion of the studies.

"There are no major issues left," Newhall Land spokeswoman Marlee Lauffer said. "This truly is a community by nature."

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