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On the Map

“The city is Santa Clarita, and the river is the Santa Clara. And I’m with Friends of the Santa Clara River. Did you get that down?” Tom Barron, a tall man in a hat with a long gray ponytail, didn’t mean to condescend; it’s just that, outside of Southern California activists, nearby residents and prospective home buyers, hardly anybody knows about the meandering, sometimes dry in spots, habitat-rich river that winds 87 miles from the San Gabriel Mountains to the ocean at Ventura. And if people don’t know the Santa Clara exists, they can’t help fight the forces that threaten it — including a luxury-housing development proposed on 141 acres of the river’s floodplain, and a large-scale gravel-mining operation in the river’s babbling upper reaches that will likely empty it over the next 20 years. So the river’s hardy band of protectors were woozy with joy on Wednesday when American Rivers, a D.C.-based nonprofit, announced that the Santa Clara had snagged a spot on its list of most endangered rivers of 2005. “It means a lot to us in terms of trying to get this river out of the back hills of L.A. County and into the spotlight,” said Santa Clara River Alliance coordinator Teresa Savaikie, dressed up for the day in a smart brown suit and hiking boots, her blond hair wound into ringlets. “Because if we lose this river, that’s it for Southern California. It’s the last truly wild one left.” Savaikie and crew held their press conference near the site of a 300-year-old Chumash burying ground at the junction of Highway 126 and Chiquito Canyon, in full view of a shimmering stretch of the river closed to the public by Newhall Land and Farming. Mati Waiya of Ventura Coastkeepers performed a Chumash ceremonial sage-burning ritual; representatives from the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and the River Project gave speeches. It was a small crowd by rally standards — 50 or so people, including activists, reporters and larger-than-life frogs meant to represent the endangered arroyo toad for which the Santa Clara is critical habitat. But what it lacked in numbers it made up for in its quiet sense of victory. It felt like the most satisfying day in years for this band of river defenders, many of whom had already lost so much. Plans by Newhall to grade and fill tributaries, shore up the floodplain, and possibly channelize the river on its sides — a confluence of engineering feats Damon Wing of Ventura Coastkeeper called “a death by a thousand cuts” — have already been approved by Los Angeles County. The city of Santa Clarita has been enthusiastic about the housing developments, too: City officials had been expected to approve a 1,100-home Newhall Land project upstream of Newhall Ranch, Riverpark, last week. When the rocket-fuel component perchlorate turned up in a nearby well, however, Newhall asked the city to wait until late next month. “We didn’t put it there,” joked one of the river protectors at the rally, “although I’m sure someone’s going to think we did.” Perchlorate has infiltrated the city’s ground water for over a half-century, since the Wittaker-Bermite munitions plant used Soledad Canyon as a testing ground. The plant closed in 1987, but the perchlorate that remains has held back development for nearly 20 years, making the toxin a somewhat paradoxical ally in the ongoing saga to preserve the river’s natural state. “This river has a lot of guardian angels,” the Sierra Club’s Johanna Zetterberg told the crowd. “But that’s not enough. Michael Antonovich — we need you to show some leadership.” Supervisor Antonovich’s planning deputy, Paul Novak, argues that the supervisor has listened plenty to environmentalist complaints. “No private development project in the history of the county has received the level of environmental analysis that Newhall Ranch did. There were thousands — I would estimate 5,000 — letters and e-mails presented to the county, all of which were thoroughly reviewed and responded to. Whatever issues they raised [at the rally], those issues have been addressed.” And they will continue to be addressed as Newhall files subdivision maps, each subject to a separate review under the California Environmental Quality Act. “The supervisor believes that the river should be preserved and protected, but also that the flow of the Santa Clara River will not be interrupted by the Newhall Ranch development,” says Novak. “I would also point out that the supervisor took the lead with [L.A. County] and the Army Corps of Engineers to launch an $8.2 million study of the watershed four to six months ago. We’re paying a hefty percentage of that money, and it may take anywhere from two to four years.” So does that mean the county will restrain Newhall until the study is completed? “I didn’t say that,” Novak says. “I said the issues associated with Newhall Ranch have been thoroughly addressed.” The Santa Clara fits a pattern of endangered rivers that American Rivers has singled out since its program began in 1986, “back when people knew that endangered meant that something’s about to get messed up,” said American Rivers’ spokesman Eric Eckl, “not that everything’s already all screwed up.” As with the previously featured Klamath and Rio Grande rivers, and this year’s fourth most endangered, the Skykomish River in Washington state, the major threat to the Santa Clara is urban America’s appetite for big new homes with wildland vistas. Sometimes rivers are removed from the list: In 1998, Montana halted construction on a cyanide-leaching gold mine in the Blackfoot River, after American Rivers cited the river in its annual report; just last year, the Knoxville Utility Board agreed to stop sewer overflows into the Tennessee River six months after the river showed up on the list. Other triumphs, however, have been short-lived: American Rivers points to the Colorado River as a success, because after it made the list, the Department of Energy promised to move a 12-million-ton uranium pile that sits precariously in the river’s floodplain. This year, however, the supposedly cash-strapped DOE reneged on the expensive plan and proposed capping the waste instead. In addition to the Newhall developments, activists complain that more than a dozen pending housing projects threaten the Santa Clara, as well as a proposed mining operation upstream near Soledad Canyon. The Cemex Co. mine, they say, will deplete the local ground water, clog the roads with 18-wheelers and exacerbate the region’s already poor air quality. Los Angeles County gave the project the go-ahead — this time without Antonovich’s help — but the city of Santa Clarita has filed lawsuits appealing the county’s consent and alleging violations of the Endangered Species Act: The affected stretch of the river is prime territory for the rare unarmored three-spined stickleback fish. A decision should be rendered next summer. Cemex has more foes than Newhall does — 17 organizations and individuals, including California state Attorney General Bill Lockyer, have filed amicus briefs in support of the city. Whether Cemex can be stopped depends on whether the city’s rights prevail over county and federal decrees: The Bureau of Land Management has issued two 10-year leases to Cemex that only the U.S. Congress can annul. Opponents are lobbying hard to see that 25th District Congressman Buck McKeon and Senator Barbara Boxer get their message heard in Washington. On the same day that American Rivers made its announcement, U.S. Fish and Wildlife dropped a segment of the San Francisquito Creek, a tributary of the Santa Clara, from the roster of critical habitats for the endangered arroyo toad. Also cut from the habitat map is a section of the Santa Clara’s headwaters near the Cemex mine. Coming on the heels of the American Rivers announcement, the revised habitat plan almost struck environmentalists like a setup. “The real issue for the whole county is air quality,” said Teresa Savaikie, “and every new home out here means one more driver on the road. So even if people don’t care about that toad, they must care about a million cars on the road driving the ozone levels up in an area that already has one of the highest ozone levels in the country. I’d like to know how L.A. County benefits from that.”?


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