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It’s the same way in Los Angeles, where large developments, such as Playa Vista, are increasing the need for water.
To help ensure that water is truly available before city councils cozy with developers approve projects, state Senator Sheila Kuehl succeeded in writing a new law in 2001. Known as the “show-me-the-water bill,” it requires cities to develop a water-supply verification report before approving large development projects.
“It’s been good at raising the consciousness that water is just as important as schools, police and roads,” Kuehl told me, when it comes to development. One key observer said the law has produced “the good, the bad and the ugly.”
Playa Vista is typical of the developments fueling transfers of water from farms, and soon to parch the throats and kill the crops of Mexicans.
Meeting in its dimly lit chamber on September 22, 2004, the Los Angeles City Council approved “phase two” of the development, which will bring 2,600 new homes and hundreds of thousands of square feet of stores and offices to the Westside of town.
The council had heard the concerns of environmentalists and local residents leading up to that day. Many also had collected years of dependable campaign contributions from the developer Playa Vista Capital. As controversy raged about its project, the company — headed by Steve Soboroff, former adviser to Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan — gave $30,500 to various members of the Los Angeles City Council over five years, including many who voted to approve the project.
However, needing to both face the voters and raise the money to run campaigns, the City Council members came that day with a compromise in hand, requiring the company to restore a portion of the Ballona Wetlands and make changes to manage traffic along Lincoln Boulevard.
Yet, with the Colorado River in its fifth year of drought and the city facing environmental requirements to leave more water in the dusty Owens Valley, east of the towering Sierra Nevadas, no environmentalist or council member in the high-ceilinged room uttered a word about Playa Vista’s water demand.
Instead, the council overwhelmingly approved the project on the basis of an environmental-impact statement finding that it would cause “no significant” impacts when it came to water supply. A previous Los Angeles Department of Water and Power analysis showed there would be adequate water available for the project, which alone was projected to increase total demand for water by 1 percent in a city where 820,000 more people were expected to live by 2010.
The water increase was seen as “minuscule,” recalled Steve Sugerman, a spokesperson for Playa Vista, who, as part of a plea agreement, is helping federal investigators prosecute former staff members of the public-relations firm Fleishman Hillard for allegedly double-billing the city under a contract with LADWP.
Yet Playa Vista may be what an observer who prefers to remain anonymous referred to as the good part of the story produced by Kuehl’s law. The documentation of the project’s needs for water was thorough. Many conservation measures were included in the project, including the use of recycled water. To get a look at the bad, I drove to the city of San Jacinto, at the base of towering mountains at the very eastern edge of greater Los Angeles in Riverside County.
As I approach San Jacinto, coming down off a winding highway through brown and barren hills, the subdivisions become apparent and signs direct people to various tracts.
I go to the busy Planning Department counter at San Jacinto City Hall in the rapidly changing community’s downtown. I am here to review the documents approved by the city Planning Commission and the City Council giving permission to developers to build the new housing.
Typical is the Tamarisk housing project, being built by D.R. Horton America’s Builder. The company — which did not return my calls — will build 257 single-family homes on 75 vacant acres. Under conditions set by the city, every front yard must be covered with turf, which is cheaper to roll out than to plant native vegetation. The extensive documents for the project say little about water supply, except for the following boilerplate statement that I find in paperwork for other subdivisions approved the very same night, October 14, 2004, that Tamarisk got the nod. It reads: “The project will contribute to groundwater depletion in the area; however, the project is consistent with the future growth envisioned by the adopted general plan.”
I ask San Jacinto City Councilman Jim Ayres about the use of water by the new developments, and he says the city will meet its supply needs by recharging its aquifer with water being imported by the Eastern Municipal Water District. The city is concerned about its water supply, he says, but he points out that the region needs more housing, as evidenced by the people who camp out the night before homes go up for sale in new subdivisions, where 2,000-square-foot-plus homes start at around $300,000.
The city, Ayres says, saw 1,500 homes go up last year, will see 1,900 built this year, and has another 5,000 to 6,000 homes “in the pipeline” of the approval process.
Asked whether the support of D.R. Horton and other builders for his campaign to become the Republican candidate for the 65th Assembly District has influenced his stance on development, Ayres simply replies: “It takes three votes to make anything happen.”