Photo by Barbara Wampole“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 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 backhills 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 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 adjacent to 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 later 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 groundwater 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 struggle to preserve the river's natural state.
“This river has a lot of guardian angels,” 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 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.” Like the previously
featured Klamath and Rio Grande, 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 heap-leach gold
mine in the Blackfoot River, after American Rivers cited river 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.
“I wish I had a magic ball to give me some idea and what would happen with the Santa Clara,” says American Rivers’ Serena McClain, “but we just don’t know. We hope we’re giving people an opportunity to study and weigh in on things like the Newhall Ranch, so the people in charge make more informed decisions and the core group of developers thinks about alternatives.” McClain says American Rivers goal “is to get a moratorium on permits being issued on the floodplain until the [watershed] study is complete. That’s a lot of money to be spending on a watershed study.”
The Newhall Ranch is not the only threat to the Santa Clara. Activists point to more than a dozen housing developments in various stages of planning and approval, as well as a proposed mining operation up in the river's northern reaches, where it runs wet year-round through Soledad Canyon. The Cemex Company mine, they say, will deplete the local groundwater, 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 stickleback fish. A decision should be rendered next summer.
The mine has many more foes than the Newhall Ranch does — 17 organizations and individuals
including California State Attorney General Bill Lockyer have filed amicus briefs
in support of the city. Whether it 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 can only the U.S. Congress can annul.
Opponents are lobbying hard to see that 25th District Congressman Bill McKeon
and Senator Barbara Boxer get their message heard in Washington. While the City
of Santa Clarita could not confirm it, some environmentalists warn the Mexican-based
mining company may invoke NAFTA to defend its interests. “The mining company is
arguing that they’re not beholden to any of our environmental laws,” says Lynne
Plambeck, president of the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment.
But she’s still not discouraged. “I don’t give up until they start building. Sometimes
I don’t even give up then.”
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. The last part is evidence to Teresa Savaikie that “these agencies are ruled by special interests, and special interests are being allowed to destroy?this river.”
Coming on the heels of the American Rivers announcement, the revised habitat plan almost felt like a setup. “I’d just had the best night’s sleep I had in a month,” she said. “And then I woke up to bad news.” She sent out an email asking readers to compare last year’s habitat plan with the revised one — and ask why a region that was so crucial to the toad’s survival last year has now been dropped altogether.
Then again, forget about fish and toads: “The real issue for
the whole county is air quality,” said 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.”