Santa Clara River Wins Newhall Reprieve

Santa Clara River, by Flickr User Wendell

June 11, 2012

Today's guest blogger is Susie Santilena, an environmental engineer and water quality scientist at Heal the Bay.

The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board Thursday made a positive decision (or lack of decision) involving one of California’s most valuable resources: the Santa Clara River. The Santa Clara River is a haven for 117 threatened, endangered, or sensitive wildlife species or communities. It is Southern California’s largest remaining free-flowing river, and one of the most endangered rivers thanks to developments such as the one considered by the Board last Thursday, the Newhall Ranch Development Plan. The development proposal, put forward by the the Newhall Land and Farming Co., spans across Los Angeles and Ventura counties and calls for building more than 20,000 homes in an environmentally sensitive area.

The Board was deciding whether to approve regulations called “waste discharge requirements” (WDRs) and certify that the project complies with the Clean Water Act. The board's decision was simple but wise: hold off, get more information on the project and determine if additional provisions are needed in the regulation to ensure that water quality is maintained.

Poised to impact thousands of acres in and around this river, the Newhall Ranch is advertised as a “green city,” yet is sited in the perfect place to do the most devastation to the environment -- in an endangered river. This project spans 14,000 acres in and around the Santa Clara River, replacing the soft natural sides of 14 miles of the river and its tributaries with concrete and other hardscape, adding 35 new stormwater outfalls into the Santa Clara River, and encroaching on an area prone to flooding.

A strong coalition of environmental organizations including Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment (SCOPE), Friends of the Santa Clara River, Ventura Coastkeeper, and Santa Monica Baykeeper, along with the Coastal Conservancy joined with Heal the Bay to voice concerns with the proposed regulations and the Newhall project itself. Some of the biggest concerns expressed included:

  • Problems with the project, such as the attempt to build houses in the 100-year floodplain and how the stream hardening and increased runoff from project will affect flow downstream
  • Misinformation and flaws in the analyses of the project,
  • Weaknesses and suggestions to strengthen the Regional Board staff’s proposed regulations, such as the need for stronger stormwater requirements, requirements to make sure design features effectively protect water quality, more mitigation for habitat losses, and numeric effluent limits for stormwater outfalls.

Common sense prevailed despite Newhall’s best efforts to sway the board to adopt the proposed weak requirements for the project The Board raised so many questions and concerns regarding the development that there wasn’t enough time in the hearing for staff members to answer and address all of them. In fact, some of these concerns may actually be “fatal flaws” with the project that require some of the design to literally go back to the drawing board. Board members elected to delay the decision on the regulations until they get more information and clarification and understand how the project can be modified to lessen impacts to water quality and beneficial uses..

Now the environmental coalition is prepping for round 2…so stay tuned!

Join Heal the Bay’s summer-long Take L.A. By Storm campaign to help preserve the Clean Water Act, which is being threatened here in Los Angeles.

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