Big Victory Against Newhall Ranch

San Fernando Valley Spineflower Photo: Anuja Parikh and Nathan Gale

A proposed development that would impact thousands of acres of land to house 60,000 people in and around six miles of the Santa Clara River—one of the last free-flowing natural rivers in California—has been put on hold.

Thanks to a lawsuit filed by the coalition of Wishtoyo, Ventura Coastkeeper, Center For Biological DiversityFriends of the Santa Clara River, Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment (SCOPE), and California Native Plant Society, the Newhall Ranch development was dealt a new setback when a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ruled in support of concerns raised by environmentalists regarding alleged flaws in the Department of Fish and Game’s environmental review of impacts to wildlife and cultural resources. This decision halts construction activities and sets aside the Department of Fish and Game’s Regulatory approvals and Environmental Impact Report for the Project.

The Santa Clara River is a valuable natural resource that flows from Los Angeles to Ventura County and is home to over 117 threatened or endangered species. Local environmental groups have been fighting the uphill battle to protect this river for many years. While many people living in the Region see this as a resource to protect in perpetuity, Newhall Land and Farming Company sees an economic opportunity at every bend of the River.

The public has many concerns with the Newhall Development Project as proposed. For one, it would be partially built in the 100-year floodplain. This would require filling the riverbed under 30 feet of dirt to raise the properties to a safer elevation which would change the shape of the river in ways that could increase erosion of the river banks, leading to loss of habitat downstream. They plan to permanently fill 47.9 acres of “waters of the U.S.” Approximately nine linear miles of tributary would be buried and converted into underground storm drain. Another 35.3 acres of waters of the U.S. (11.4 of which are wetlands) would be “temporarily” impacted. The hardening of numerous miles of the Santa Clara as proposed, along with the runoff generated by new impervious areas, will devastate macroinvertebrate populations within the River and its tributaries, while causing scour and other impacts downstream.

On September 14th, the Regional Board certified a water quality permit for the Newhall project. Prior to the Superior Court ruling, the Regional Board’s certification was expected to be one of the last regulatory hoops Newhall had to jump through before starting construction (or destruction, depending how you look at it).  During extensive testimony, the environmental coalition pointed out flaws in the Army Corps evaluation of project alternatives that led to the best project option—the one that would not result in the project being built in the 100-year flood plain—being eliminated from consideration. Adding to these concerns, consultants hired by the Coastal Conservancy found flaws in the hydrologic analyses performed by the project proponents that resulted in the underestimation of impacts downstream of the river.

Heal the Bay joined the other environmental groups to highlight water quality impacts of the project as well as the problems with hydromodification, and we succeeded in strengthening the permit from the previous draft. The project originally did not capture a large enough amount of rain in the area to protect water quality in the river. Thanks to the work of the environmental coalition, Newhall now has to capture the 1.1 inch rain storm, retain a geomorphologist to measure and monitor impacts that the project is having downstream, and develop a plan to address the impacts of the project. These are important protections should construction of the project proceed.

Construction will, however, be delayed because Fish and Game must suspend activity that might impact the river resources until the agency corrects the deficiencies in the studies of the Newhall project impacts.

Read more about Newhall Ranch on LATimes.com. 

— Susie Santilena, Environmental Engineer - Water Quality

Keep up on Heal the Bay's water quality advocacy work.