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Law Linking Water Use to Growth OKd

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After 10 years of debate, Gov. Gray Davis on Tuesday signed into law a bill that forces builders of large subdivisions to show that water supplies exist to support the hundreds of people who will move into their developments.

Hailed by proponents as a rational way to regulate growth in arid, populous California, the bill by Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) is the toughest yet enacted to link development and water supplies. It prohibits cities and counties from issuing permits for the construction of projects of 500 homes or more unless the local water agency verifies that it has enough water to serve the new growth over at least the next 20 years, including long stretches of drought.

“For the first time,” Kuehl said, “California law associates water-use planning with land-use planning.”

The governor also signed a companion bill, by Sen. Jim Costa (D-Fresno), that requires cities and counties to consult water agencies early in the planning stages of a development.

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After long opposing the legislation, the state’s building industry signed on to it earlier this year. Some water agencies remained concerned about inheriting responsibility for long-term assessments of water supplies.

Still, Kuehl and other backers prevailed.

“Together, these bills provide an important and necessary foundation for developing comprehensive state water policies to prepare California to meet our future water needs,” wrote Davis in signing the bills. Nonetheless, wrote the governor, more must be done to expand water supplies.

“California’s ability to meet its demand for water is further hampered by low rainfall during the past year,” he wrote. “It is now necessary to address our water supply and storage needs to ensure that water is not California’s next crisis and guarantee our place in the world economy.”

After years of vigorous opposition from Realtors and developers, Kuehl said, she was able to push a bill through the Legislature this year because Davis took an active interest.

“When the builders perceived that the governor was more positive about the bill than they had thought,” Kuehl said, “they came to me at the end in August and they said we’re still concerned, but if you take these amendments we’ll remove our opposition.”

The state’s electricity crisis helped spark the governor’s interest, Kuehl said.

“He very well understood that planning is an essential part of provision of services that we take for granted,” she said.

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For decades, cities and counties have approved the construction of homes, strip malls and office parks without consulting the agencies that must supply the water for those projects. Few politicians noticed the disconnect until a six-year drought in the late 1980s and early 1990s. During those lean times, policymakers noted that though California had not built any major reservoirs since the 1970s, it had added 10 million residents.

Kuehl’s bill, SB 221, was inspired by a development battle in the early 1990s. In 1992, Contra Costa County approved an 11,000-home development in the hills east of San Francisco. The East Bay Municipal Utility District sued, arguing that it did not have enough water to serve the new community in a drought. Trying to provide for all those new homes, the district argued, could force it to ration water to its existing customers.

The home building and real estate industries fought various versions of such a bill, as did labor unions, business groups and other water agencies.

In 1995, a compromise bill by Costa was signed into law. It asked cities and counties to consider water supplies before approving new development, but surveys by the East Bay district showed that local governments rarely asked water agencies to prove they had sufficient water.

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The Assn. of California Water Agencies remained opposed to Kuehl’s bill to the end, arguing that it would leave water agencies vulnerable to lawsuits and that it was unfair to ask them to assess future demand on shared sources such as underground aquifers, which are tapped by many users.

But “we always supported and supported to the end the concept of linking land-use decisions to assurances of water supplies,” said association Executive Director Steve Hall.

The new law comes too late to apply to Newhall Ranch, a 22,000-home development near Santa Clarita. In a landmark water-policy ruling in May 2000, a Superior Court judge voided Los Angeles County’s approval of the development. Judge Roger D. Randall found that the county failed to thoroughly study where water would come from to serve 70,000 residents, making the environmental analysis of the project incomplete.

That court decision, Kuehl said, helped her round up votes in the Legislature for her bill.

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“I could argue that going to court for eight years was not a better solution,” she said.

The new law also will not affect the 3,150-home Ahmanson Ranch development in Ventura County because it has already been approved by county supervisors.

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Times staff writer Daryl Kelley contributed to this report.

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