Watershead, Fall 2004
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Court of Appeals Voids Santa Clara River Water Plan

The Sierra Club and Friends of the Santa Clara River won a major court victory Wednesday when the CA Court of Appeals invalidated the Urban Water Management Plan for the Santa Clara River Valley in both Los Angeles and Ventura Counties. The Fifth District Appellate Court set aside the 2000 Urban Water Management Plan, approved by Castaic Lake Water Agency and three other water retailers, because the Plan did not adequately address perchlorate contamination in local groundwater supplies. The Plan is critical to several major developments in the Santa Clarita Valley, including the 21,600-home Newhall Ranch, which must demonstrate a firm water supply before obtaining construction permits.

The Court faulted the Plan because it failed to show how groundwater contaminated with perchlorate could be treated in time to meet growing demands to serve future development. Friends and the Sierra Club had challenged the Plan because it included the Santa Clarita Valley's tainted groundwater as a backup supply in case State Water Project deliveries were reduced during drought periods. These environmental groups pointed out that groundwater contamination by perchlorate, a toxic byproduct of rocket fuel manufacture, had already closed five municipal wells, and continued to spread as groundwater pumping increased.

The environmental groups hailed the decision, which is the first court ruling enforcing the 20-year-old Urban Water Management Planning Act. Ron Bottorff, Chairman of Friends, exulted that "We are thrilled that the Court has validated our concerns that the water districts' plan to pump more water conflicted with their duty to protect public health and safety. Their plan to accelerate pumping would only spread the perchlorate contamination, harming existing as well as future groundwater use," added Mr. Bottorff.

"The Court's ruling is a triumph of science over politics," exclaimed Barbara Wampole, a local Sierra Club leader and Vice-Chair of Friends. "In response to overwhelming scientific evidence that perchlorate contamination was spreading as these water districts increased groundwater pumping, the districts plunged their heads deeper into the sand," said Ms. Wampole. "The Court's vindication of our concerns protects the public's safety and prevents unsustainable urban sprawl," noted Ms. Wampole.

"This ruling is a resounding victory for the environment," said Stephan Volker, attorney for the environmental plaintiffs. "We are gratified that the Court has put real teeth into the Act. As a result of this decision, water districts must address and solve water contamination problems before dependent urban development is approved. This ruling restores integrity to the urban development approval process," added Mr. Volker.

The appellate court overturned the superior court's ruling upholding the Plan. That plan had claimed that there was enough water to supply about 2,000 new homes in the Santa Clarita Valley each year for the next twenty years. The appellate court's invalidation of the Plan means that the water districts will have to reassess their ability to provide for this rapid urban growth in light of the serious, but thus far unresolved perchlorate contamination problem.


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