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Lynne Plambeck: Is Newhall Ranch really moving foward?

Environmentally Speaking

Posted: April 29, 2009 8:54 p.m.
Updated: April 30, 2009 4:30 a.m.

More than 10 years ago, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers certified the Environmental Impact Report for Newhall Land and Farming’s euphemistically titled “Natural River Management Plan.”

This plan comprised some 59 projects along 15 miles of the Santa Clara River that passed through the center of Santa Clarita and up San Francisquito Creek.

It was supposed to be a new “comprehensive” permit that would protect the many endangered species along the river as development occurred.

It allowed development in the floodplain of the Santa Clara River and San Francisquito Creek to move forward and enabled the elimination of the county’s revered “Significant Ecological Area” designations in those reaches of the river, and in Bouquet Creek, San Francisquito Creek and Castaic Creek.

This week the Newhall Land and Farming Company released another such plan for the Santa Clara River in the area of its proposed Newhall Ranch to allow building in the floodplain and significant ecological area along the Santa Clara River west of Interstate 5.

While news articles seemed to imply that this report is about approving housing in Newhall Ranch, it instead is directed at allowing construction of reinforced banks and bridges in the river so  building can occur in the floodplain.

It will address preservation of species and habitat in the Santa Clara river and its tributaries.

All of us will be looking back to review just how successful the last plan was at protecting species, habitat and our beloved Santa Clara River.
Newhall Land’s Natural River Management Plan has not worked well.

For instance, to protect endangered bird species, the plan prohibited construction in the breeding season.

Biologists were supposed to survey for nesting birds to make sure they were not disturbed by construction activities when nesting was taking place.

Instead, noisemakers were erected in prime habitat locations that emitted piercing tones to keep the birds away. Luckily a local bird enthusiast, Teresa Savaikie, noticed them, and thanks to Friends of the Santa Clara River who brought suit for noncompliance, these harassing noisemakers where removed.

Endangered or threatened birds and fish have virtually disappeared from the Natural River Plan Management area.

No three-spined unarmored stickleback can be seen and the arroyo chub died as tributaries were drained and channeled. The arroyo toad has disappeared and no one has seen a long-eared jackrabbit in quite some time.

Where are the pond turtles that used to frequent the banks of Castaic Creek? What happened to the spade foot toads in the wetlands next to what is now the Riverpark project?

And what about the “Oxbow Pond” that local conservationists were unable to save, but which was supposed to be “restored” in San Francisquito Creek? It is still just a mound of dirt.

Instead of the magnificent habitat that it once was, the river is now fraught with off-road vehicle riders that create noise, dust and destruction.

The last plan was approved for a 20-year period and was supposed to create the safeguard of five-year periodic reviews to ensure that it was functioning as predicted.

These five-year reviews were the only reason that the environmental community did not pursue legal remedies against a plan that appeared unable to carry out its charge of protecting fragile habitat and species on the brink.

However, the reviews were not performed as expected, so even this final safeguard failed.

Now Newhall Land wants to proceed with another such plan in an even more sensitive area of the river west of the I-5 for the Newhall Ranch development.

This plan would once again enable the destruction of a significant ecological area and allow building in the floodplain.

With thousands of housing units already permitted but unbuilt in the Santa Clarita Valley, pads in the Riverpark project and West Creek standing empty and a looming water crisis, we can only wonder at the audacity of releasing this plan at this time.

This time the public will have the example of Newhall Land’s previous Natural River Management Plan and its lack of effectiveness to bring up before the Army Corps of Engineers.

They will be able to show how Newhall Land tried to illegally destroy the habitat of the endangered spineflower in Newhall Ranch.

They will be able to show that trapping and removing black-eared jackrabbits while destroying their habitat did not save them.

The Santa Clara River is a treasure trove of animals and plants that do not exist anywhere else in the world and are fast disappearing.

It is the source of a good part of our water supply, both for humans, plants and animals.

It provides beauty and open space for our community.

We must do a better job of protecting it this time.

Lynne Plambeck is president 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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