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Over the Long Haul, a Big Problem

Marc B. Haefele comments on local and state issues for KPCC-FM.

Drive six miles up Sand Canyon Road, past well-shaded ranch houses, well-groomed horses and spotless white longhorns, up toward the steep, sage- covered hills of the Angeles National Forest and you’ll quickly sense why people live there: the utter silence of the slopes surrounding the Antelope Valley. You don’t even hear the drone of the Antelope Valley Freeway. Typically, the loudest noise on a weekday afternoon is the thwack of a mare’s tail against her haunch, the buzz of the displaced horsefly, the caw of a distant crow.

Suddenly, there intrudes the grinding growl of a fully loaded, 10-wheel diesel straight-rig tank truck. Downshifting, the truck turns down a road not much wider than a cattle path. It’s carrying 4,000 gallons -- 16 tons -- of fresh water to a small rancher’s property, a sure sign that the basic necessity that made these pastoral surroundings livable is in dire short supply.

Nowadays, residents of the Antelope and nearby Santa Clarita valleys are up in arms about a county regulation that stops such water hauling to locations that don’t already receive it. Small landholders see the edict as an impediment to further development of their properties. Meanwhile, the corporate landowners responsible for north Los Angeles County’s avalanche of development get to hook their thousands of homes to state and local water utilities that the little guys are forbidden to access. The fear is that the anti-trucking ruling will destroy land values: “It’s condemnation without compensation,” one Acton property owner says. In response, county Supervisor Michael Antonovich is holding hearings in the Acton area on the 7-month-old policy.

In the big, ugly snapshot of exploding Southland urban sprawl, development by tanker truck sounds like one of the worst excesses yet. As the late Marc Reisner put it in “Cadillac Desert,” this seems the kind of surfeit where “we began to founder on the Era of Limits.” More than a thousand square miles of L.A. County remain desert, long considered undevelopable. If it were legal to truck water to these regions, how would the Mojave Desert’s delicate ecosystem survive? The possibility alarms government ecological and environmental officials, one of whom recently said “I almost drove off the road when I heard” the county was reconsidering the water-trucking rule.

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As it happens, a 2002 law by state Sen. Sheila Kuehl forbids development of housing tracts larger than 500 units without local well or utility water sources. Because a Southland home consumes, on average, nearly 180 gallons of water a day (that’s the L.A. Department of Water and Power average), 500 homes would require 90,000 daily gallons, or 23 4,000-gallon truck trips a day, nearly 8,400 trips a year. These trucks would bring much new diesel pollution into an area already plagued by bad air, along with monstrous road wear.

Possibly, no one yet has such an arid subdivision planned. But skyrocketing housing prices and soaring demand could create one, if the law would permit it. Meanwhile, no one’s sure just where all the trucked water would come from.

Bob Fleck of Sand Canyon, who heads a local well owners association, says the ground-water shortage problem is literally deeper than many people realize. “I had to sink my well 12 feet to find water in 1997,” he says. “Now it’s down at 94 feet, and that’s in a year of normal rainfall.”

Fleck thinks that over-pumping by the fast-growing city of Santa Clarita has caused the aquifer of the Santa Clara River, to which Sand Canyon Wash is a tributary, to sink. Well users elsewhere in the 1,634-square-mile Santa Clara watershed have also complained about sinking water tables and diminished water supply. Oddly enough, the problem is exacerbated by another new county requirement: Any new well in the area must be capable of delivering three gallons a minute for 24 hours in normal land, or for 72 hours in rocky terrain. This means that a single-family property owner’s new well has to deliver in one hour the same 180 gallons that the average DWP customer uses in an entire day.

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If the water table is falling, fewer such bountiful wells will be drilled. Some residents already use trucked water to bolster their diminished well supply. And there’s a whispered fear that if some wells fail, and the county anti-trucking regulation holds, some awfully handsome rural homes will be worthless.

John Schunhoff, chief of county public health operations, says the anti-water-trucking measure is also health-related. “Part of the question is as to where it comes from,” he says, adding that there’s a further concern to “assure that the water is sanitary, as is the holding tank system.”

Paul Novak, Antonovich’s planning deputy, allows that part of the problem may be what he termed inadequate state regulations regarding trucked water. “But that doesn’t help someone who’s been seeing his neighbors trucking in their water for years and then finds he can’t do it himself.”

The water-truck ban may be a major little-guy issue in the Antelope Valley, but in adjacent Santa Clarita some see the shortage necessitating water haulage as one of many baleful results of decades of bad regional water planning. The county, for instance, in its Water Resource District’s 2000-01 hydrological report, stated: “The department has no [ground-water replenishment] spreading areas in the Santa Clarita area. Much of the valley is open space, permitting substantial natural percolation.”

This appears to ignore the fact that mushrooming Santa Clarita is now one of the county’s largest cities, and that abutting areas are equally bursting with malls and housing for tens of thousands. “They’ve been paving over recharge areas for years,” says Lynne Plambeck, a member of the Newhall Community Water District’s board of directors. In 1988, she asserts, official reports said the Santa Clara River could supply 32,000 acre-feet a year (an acre-foot being enough for a large family for a year). “They’ve been overdrawing on that for at least seven years.”

County officials insist the community isn’t overdrawing. But Plambeck says most of their data come from experts hired to do developers’ environmental impact reports. “You can’t have good planning if you don’t have good information,” she says.

Antelope Valley residents realize this too. As the Acton property owner put it, “We’ll have this problem [as] long as the county hands out building permits to anyone who wants one.”


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