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Tejon Ranch Contends It Has Enough Water

The company says it has adequate resources to proceed with plans for three major projects. Critics cast doubt on reliability of supplies.

December 12, 2004|Daryl Kelley | Times Staff Writer

LEBEC, Calif. — Plans to develop the rugged Tejon Ranch, a vast stretch of mountains and desert valleys 50 miles north of Los Angeles, have swirled for nearly a century. But one roadblock persisted: the lack of a reliable water supply.

Then state officials routed the river-sized California Aqueduct through the ranch. And with the arrival of melted snow from the north in the 1970s, water concerns began to fade.

Now, Tejon Ranch executives plan to build three major projects along Interstate 5 in southern Kern and northern Los Angeles counties: a sprawling mountain resort with thousands of houses, a huge industrial park and the 70,000-resident city of Centennial.

Despite new laws and court rulings requiring developers to prove firm water supplies even during drought, ranch officials say water is no longer an obstacle.

"Even when the rest of the state is shut down and rationing, we're still going to be in good shape," said Dennis Mullins, the ranch's general counsel.

Critics say they don't have enough information yet to challenge such assertions, because Centennial's water plan has not been released and Tejon Mountain Resort is still in the planning stages.

Yet, critics believe the ranch may be overstating groundwater supplies while relying too much on rights to water imported from the State Water Project through the California Aqueduct, despite delivery of only about 20% of such "paper water" during a drought in the early 1990s.

"I'm continually skeptical of the way developers count State Water Project entitlements. Our history is one of floods and drought, and they're pretty hard to predict," said John Gibler, of Public Citizen, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization founded by Ralph Nader.

Jan de Leeuw, a UCLA statistics professor who lives near Tejon Ranch, said he has studied ranch water issues for five years and doubts its supplies are reliable.

"The basic problem is that everything they say about groundwater is speculative, because there's been no comprehensive groundwater study of that area," De Leeuw said. "Previous plans to develop Tejon Ranch did not happen because a judge thought a comprehensive groundwater study was needed."

Tejon Ranch officials said a detailed 2003 water analysis should answer all questions about supplies for the ranch's Kern County projects: the mountain resort near Tejon Lake and the warehouse complex near Grapevine at the foot of the Tehachapi Mountains.

"There's no weakness in this water plan," Mullins said of the Kern County projections. "It will withstand any scrutiny."

Centennial developers, Tejon Ranch and three home-building companies say preliminary studies show there is also plenty of water for that community of 23,000 dwellings and its 14-million-square-foot business park, the largest such project in Los Angeles County history.

That's because Tejon Ranch owns the rights to enough water from Northern California to provide for a medium-sized city, can store even more in underground basins for dry periods and can pump from deep wells and natural springs when necessary, officials say. Their plans also include extensive use of reclaimed water for landscaping as well as water conservation through irrigation systems shut off by satellite when it rains.

"We can put a spigot right in there," ranch President Robert Stine said recently, pointing to the California Aqueduct, which slices more than 20 miles through Tejon Ranch as it climbs 3,000 feet from the San Joaquin Valley floor and tunnels south through the Tehachapi Mountains. Indeed, the California Aqueduct runs through the emerging industrial complex, lies on the eastern edge of the planned mountain resort and bisects the proposed town of Centennial in the western Antelope Valley.

Centennial developers say they can pull surplus water from the concrete river in wet years and store it below ground, so the project would not need a drop of imported water in dry years.

"In the worst-case scenario, we would not take any water from the State Water Project," said Centennial project manager Greg Mederios. "We would rely on groundwater."

Overall, Tejon Ranch has a right to about 21,000 acre feet of state water for urban and agricultural use each year, but would receive just 72% of that on average and far less in a dry year, according to the state. An acre foot is enough water for two families of four for a year.

With imported water alone, the ranch could theoretically provide for about 120,000 residents in a typical year, and about 85,000 residents in the one year out of five when supplies are only half of state entitlements or less.

But about three-fourths of the ranch's imported water is designated for farm use in Kern County. And while farm water could potentially be used in urban development -- Tejon Ranch has already transferred about 4,000 acre feet -- Kern County water officials generally discourage moving water to another county.

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