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Cam Noltemeyer: A perfect storm for water woes in the SCV

Environmentally Speaking

Posted: April 22, 2009 6:20 p.m.
Updated: April 23, 2009 4:55 a.m.
Managers of Castaic Lake Water Agency have often stated that drought does not occur in northern and southern California at the same time, so we would always have an adequate water supply. And for this year anyway, they were right. The Santa Clarita Valley has enjoyed slightly better than average rainfall, while diminished snow packs in Northern California have severely reduced our access to water from the State Water Project.

However, a massive building spree that ignored future water supply problems and a polluted ground water source has created a "perfect storm" of problems.

Although ammonium perchlorate pollution (a by-product of rocket fuel and ordinance manufacture) was discovered in the valley's deep Saugus Aquifer in 1997. Six of the water agencies' highest producing wells were closed, and the facilities to clean up that water are still not operating. Environmental groups have long complained that housing approvals should be delayed until the cleanup project was completed to avoid water supply shortages that could possibly force blended use of this polluted water source.

Now, some 12 years later, and with an impending water crisis, those wells have still not been returned to service. The insurance company that was supposed to help pay for the cleanup, AIG, has experienced severe financial problems, and the cleanup will not provide the same water production as the closed wells. CLWA's proposed completion date, originally asserted to occur some five years ago, has slipped once again to July of this year. We can only hope that it doesn't slip further and that this new technology actually works as predicted.

But perhaps the biggest problem is that we have become far too dependent on a source of water that is not reliable. The State Water Project depends on snowfall from the Northern Sierra Nevada mountain range. It was also built on water predictions derived from the last 70 or 80 years, a very geologically limited length of time. Climatologists believe that this period may have been much wetter than normal, and predict that rising temperatures as a result of climate change will reduce this supply even further than what might have occurred under a more normal scenario.

This year Santa Clarita will receive only 20 percent of its state water allocation. That works out to a cutback of more than 50 percent of the water we received from Northern California. Is this the "new normal"?

Such a cutback would not create problems in most communities where they have not become dependent on this unreliable northern water as their primary source. But our elected officials have ignored the pleas of community members and the local environmental groups alike to not count "paper water" that doesn't really exist. Only after several public interest lawsuits brought by community groups did water agencies start to honestly disclose water supply in building approval documents. Even then, the City Council and county approved units based on a "normal" year, as though climate change, drought and polluted wells didn't exist.

So here we are now in 2009, with thousands of already approved units set to be built, as soon as the economy allows.

This includes the Lyons Ranch senior housing project that was just approved on March 24 in a severe fire hazard zone, in spite of our diminished water supply.

The Fire Department claims there will be no problem ensuring the seniors' safety from fire. But what if there is no water?

That is exactly what happened in last year's Sayre fire. Besides being pushed by 60-mile-perhour wind gusts that created an unstoppable wall of flames and made water drops from air tankers difficult, there was no water pressure and little or no water coming out of the firehoses on the ground. With potential electrical outages that often accompany fire, we can only wonder how the county Fire Department can so brazenly assure the safety of our seniors who will occupy this project in the future.

So with water cutbacks and uncompleted clean up facilities, I was glad to see the city's Planning Commission attend a study session at the Castaic Lake Water Agency to hear about the valley's water supply.

I was, however, dismayed that the Commission's question regarding how the new water plant expansion would address the increase in chloride pollution to the Santa Clara River and the cost of correcting this problem as required by the new chloride limit regulations was not answered satisfactorily.

Did the Water Agency have some bad news about our water supply to tell the commission that they didn't want the public to hear? We just don't know.

Cam Noltemeyer is a board member of the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment (SCOPE) and a Santa Clarita resident. "Environmentally Speaking" appears Thursdays in The Signal and rotates among local environmentalists. Her column reflects her own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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