By Pam Linn

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When the wells suck air

Returning to my home in the mountains north of Los Angeles is always a mixed blessing. I look forward to seeing my children and grandchildren living on the ranch, the horses I remember and the new ones I’ve never seen. Two dogs and two cats, all in their dotage, greet me each time with diminished enthusiasm and even a bit of wariness.

My bad. It must seem to them that I leave for longer periods and return for shorter stays. I guess I’ve become just another visiting relative at holidays. Yet it still feels like home.

Each time I look to see how much land has been developed nearby, how many people complain that their wells are sucking air. Tejon Ranch increased the size of its once-seasonal lake with groundwater pumped from aquifers that belong to everyone. They renamed it Castac Lake after the Castac Grant Line that appears on all our plat maps (not Castaic, the town 40 miles south).

This “improvement” was meant to attract buyers for pricey home sites overlooking the water. Tejon Ranch, originally owned by the Chandler family (which also owned the Los Angeles Times), was once dedicated to cattle and agriculture.

The lake, fed by underground springs and storm runoff in Cuddy Creek, developed a leak after the 1952 earthquake that leveled the town of Tehachapi and destroyed a sizable portion of the historic hotel at Lebec. Afterward, for four or five months in summer, the lakebed was exposed and looked like the salt flats of Bonneville until the next winter storms arrived. Seven consecutive drought years nearly did it in altogether.

When Tejon Ranch went public and changed its focus to land development, lake restoration was deemed essential. But the bottom still leaked so, instead of sealing it with drilling mud, more water is regularly pumped into it and then is lost to evaporation and ground seepage. More years of drought, more water wasted while existing wells upstream run dry and longtime homeowners cry foul.

The story is repeated nearly every year in places all over Southern California. Developers say they’re meeting the demand for affordable housing, but with soaring gas prices, the tradeoff no longer pencils out. People who bought cheap homes in Lancaster thought they could commute to jobs in Los Angeles. But even with Metrolink, they no longer can make ends meet.

Whatever happened to the proposed legislation that demanded developers prove water assets equal to the needs of homes they sought to build? It sounded like a fair and valid plan. But, in practice, it doesn’t seem to be working. Perhaps it’s because attorneys’ fees and lawsuits over water rights have become too costly or maybe they killed the legislation altogether. Of course, climate change is degrading water resources just about everywhere.

Now we’re reading about the Las Lomas plan for 5,553 homes and 2.3 million square feet of commercial space in the Newhall Pass, already a traffic nightmare, between the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys. After a six-year land-use battle, much of it under the radar screen, the builder is pushing for the city of Los Angeles to annex the land, which lies in an unincorporated area of Los Angeles County. The City Council is scheduled this week to debate whether to continue work on the project.

The fact that it’s opposed by the adjacent city of Santa Clarita, where planners seem to have done a much better than average job of managing growth and supporting architectural standards, should carry more weight here. Santa Clarita’s planning manager said the project is grossly incompatible with its surroundings and violates every principle of urban planning.

Meanwhile, opponents on the L.A. side charge the project would overtax the city’s already strained public services, create unbearable traffic and destroy a rare wildlife corridor.

I wonder where Santa Clarita officials stood when the Newhall Land Co. built those hideous houses on the ridgelines above neighboring Castaic. That development, which may have its own water issues, appears to violate every law of esthetics in urban planning, if not every guideline for fire protection in the urban/wildland interface. And residents are paying more than half their paychecks for transportation costs.

So, who really pays when the wells run dry? When county and forest firefighters have to defend those homes? When the traffic becomes unbearable? When the schools are hopelessly overcrowded? We all do.

Our property taxes are rising, in some cases at twice the rate of inflation, even as assessments based on comps and unsold inventory plummet. So, at a time when new housing is hard to sell at the cost of construction and barely used homes are in foreclosure, why should massive new housing projects be approved?

Our city planners, county supervisors and other elected officials need to stop and take a harder look at the ramifications of rampant growth. It isn’t inevitable. When sprawl is no longer cost effective, when our infrastructure is strained to the max, we could just call a halt. Building affordable houses that aren’t, tapping water supplies that dwindle to puddles, will eventually collapse the economy and the quality of life we sought when we all first moved here.

It would be comforting to come back to find the landscape unchanged. To find people living in homes that fit naturally into that landscape. To find their wells pumping clear water, not sucking air.