Ron Bottorff: Concerns Over Newhall Plan Are Still Valid

In January, a coalition of Environmental groups — Friends of the Santa Clara River, Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment, Ventura Coastkeeper, California Native Plant Society and the Center for Biological Diversity — filed suit against the California Department of Fish and Game regarding its impending stream alteration permit for Newhall Ranch.

The suit was not taken lightly, nor with any intent to keep the Newhall Ranch saga churning. Rather, the five environmental groups saw unacceptable impacts to valuable biological resources as a result of this approval and felt they had to act.

There were several alternatives available to state Fish and Game and to the Army Corps of Engineers, which will issue a separate federal permit. The alternative chosen by these agencies is a somewhat modified version of Newhall’s original plan.

It allows building in the floodplain of the Santa Clara River, as well as loss of river woodlands, and in addition fails to establish an adequate mitigation plan. The loss of floodplain would total 110 acres, and approximately 20 miles of river tributaries would be buried under fill up to 20 feet deep.

It is instructive to look back to 1996, when the original Newhall Ranch Specific Plan was under consideration by Los Angeles County. This specific plan, which was approved in 1997, is the only part of Newhall Ranch that has received any approvals. None of the proposed five villages of the project, including Landmark Village, has received approval.

At this time, the Department of Fish and Game and numerous other agencies offered comments on the plan. The department, in a letter dated

Dec. 5, 1996, noted concern over cumulative impacts of Newhall Ranch on the Santa Clara River that would include effects from numerous other Newhall projects in the city of Santa Clarita (many of which have now been constructed).
The letter then went on to note many other areas of concern. Here are significant excerpts:

“The department recommends the project be redesigned to include, at a minimum, a 500-foot buffer from the outermost edge of the riparian habitat. …

“The project will increase flood volumes through increased runoff from impervious surfaces. This increase in flood volumes will result in velocity changes that could cause take of the state and federally-listed unarmored threespined stickleback.

“Also, these increases will cause riparian habitats to be lost, which will result in a loss of nesting opportunities for endangered bird species. … Additionally, the 500-foot buffer would help mitigate impacts to the Southwestern pond turtle. … Buffer for the pond turtle is necessary as they are known to nest over a quarter mile from the water
edge.”

The above series of comments by the department seem to show an understanding of, and sensitivity to, loss and  degradation of habitat due to urban encroachment. Such degradation results from many causes, including potentially heavy human use and predation by household pets such as cats and dogs, as well as runoff pollution.

In contrast to the above letter, however, the department’s 2011 proposed permit would offer nothing anywhere near a 500-foot buffer, and in some areas, no buffer at all. Riparian vegetation — freshwater stream areas thick with vegetation that harbor dozens and dozens of species — would be bulldozed.

Here is another excerpt: “The reliance on the proposed 19 extraction wells for potable water supply for this project is questionable. Since these wells will be extracting from the subsurface flows of the Santa Clara River, a water rights appropriation will be required.

The department is also concerned with the lack of information in the (draft environmental impact report) regarding changes that would occur in the river as a result of these extractions. It is possible and even likely that these extractions would reduce the groundwater basin and flows within the river.”

The letter did not mention that reducing groundwater basins would lead to drying out and loss of riparian vegetation, as well.

The department also could have cited other scientific studies that show impacts to riparian bird species occur up to distances of 1,500 feet from urban development, and that urban-edge effects due to human activities and household pets can penetrate as deeply as a mile into adjacent natural areas.

Friends of the Santa Clara River has long promoted protection of the Santa Clara River as one of the few major Southern California rivers that remain in a relatively natural state. Its watershed is home to a great diversity of rare species, including the unarmored threespined stickleback fish, the California condor, the least Bell’s vireo, southwestern willow flycatcher, California red-legged frog, arroyo toad, southern steelhead trout and the San Fernando Valley spineflower.

Friends and the other environmental groups that joined this action believe the department’s permit approvals for Newhall Ranch would result in unacceptable impacts to wildlife and to some of the finest riparian areas to be found anywhere in Southern California — a region that has lost all but 3 percent of its historic river woodlands.

Since the Department of Fish and Game said in 1996 that a 500-foot buffer zone was needed to protect the river and its flood plain, the real question is, what has changed that allowed the department to approve its recent, much weaker permit protections?

Ron Bottorff is chairman of Friends of the Santa Clara River. His column reflects his own views, not necessarily those of The Signal.

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