Contaminated water can't stop California sprawl

Rocket fuel ingredient and other pollutants now commonplace in groundwater

  • Workers install a perchlorate treatment system on the well slated to provide drinking water to the proposed West Creek development

    Valencia Water Co.
 

For more than 50 years, Newhall Land and Farming Co., once a mighty ranching outfit, has been turning its northern Los Angeles County lands into subdivsions. Recently, however, the developer has faced increasing opposition from local environmentalists and conservation groups who claim Newhall is pushing sprawl — and relying on tainted drinking water.

The Sierra Club, Friends of the Santa Clara River and the Santa Clara Organization for Planning the Environment have all tried to halt Newhall’s latest project, a 2,500-home development north of Los Angeles called West Creek. Environmentalists have expressed concern about the project’s impacts on a rare frog and on the Santa Clara River, and have challenged Newhall’s assertions about the reliability of imported water supplies. Their efforts have slowed, but not stopped, the giant developer.

Then, this April, the fight took a new turn. A routine test of a well slated to supply drinking water to West Creek found high levels of perchlorate, a rocket fuel ingredient that has been linked to thyroid problems in adults and developmental disabilities in fetuses.

Lynne Plambeck, an area activist who has fought Newhall for years, argues that the perchlorate may spread to more wells, endangering current and future residents. "I think that for the safety of the public, remediation facilities (must) be online before they approve this growth," she says.

But Newhall Vice President Marlee Lauffer says that environmentalists inflated the perchlorate danger in a last-ditch attempt to stop West Creek. And on July 26, with a perchlorate treatment plan in hand and proof of additional water supplies, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved Newhall’s final environmental report by a vote of 3 to 1. Lauffer expects that model West Creek homes, priced from the "mid-threes through the mid-eights," will be available for viewing by next fall.

The problem with perchlorate

West Creek’s homes are part of an ever-growing planned community based around Newhall’s Valencia housing development, begun in the 1960s. While Valencia was sprouting, the nearby Whittaker-Bermite factory was producing perchlorate for Sidewinder missiles and military flares. The factory closed in 1987, but the perchlorate in the site’s soil eventually leached into the aquifers on which area water suppliers rely.

Between 1997 and 2002, five area wells were capped after they were found with perchlorate levels ranging from 5.9 parts per billion to more than 40 parts per billion. There are no enforceable federal standards for perchlorate, but California’s Department of Health requires that the public be notified when levels in a water supply reach six parts per billion. At 18 parts per billion, a water source must be shut down.

The well where perchlorate was discovered in April is contaminated at about 10 parts per billion. Valencia Water Co., a subsidiary of Newhall Land, capped the West Creek well and made its status public. But the well will soon be online again.

In 2000, five area water companies, including Valencia, sued Whittaker, several investors who want to redevelop the site, and their respective insurers. They sought at least $60 million, the cost of cleaning up perchlorate in the ground and water beneath the site. A judge ruled in 2003 that Whittaker and its insurers are liable for the contamination, and Whittaker has since agreed to a preliminary settlement of $500,000 to cover water-treatment equipment at the West Creek well.

But payments for the ongoing water treatment costs at the well — some $9,500 a month — and for cleaning up other wells if they become contaminated in the future, are still being hammered out, according to Robert DiPrimio, president of Valencia Water Co.

Treating wells, not sources

The Army Corps of Engineers has begun soil decontamination at the Whittaker site. But it has yet to start work on the plume leaking into the groundwater, and complete perchlorate removal will likely take 30 years of nonstop pumping, says Larry Sievers, the Corps’ manager for the project.

Full cleanup hinges on getting more settlement money. Fred Fudacz, a lawyer for the water companies, says, "We’ll get the money one way or another." But if Whittaker and the insurance companies fail to pay, cleanup costs could fall on Valencia Water’s shoulders, forcing the company to raise local water rates, warns company president DiPrimio.

In the meantime, DiPrimio says the West Creek well, which is capable of producing roughly 60 percent of the planned development’s needs, will continue to be one of many water sources Valencia Water Co. relies on. West Creek, like Valencia’s current customers, will get a mix of well water and water from Castaic Lake Water Agency.

Critics such as Plambeck, however, say that relying on imported water and wellhead water treatment is just a Band-Aid to speed through West Creek and other developments. Public safety, she says, is being disregarded by a water company owned by a developer that’s eager to see its homes selling in an all-time high housing market. "Instead of cleaning at the source," she says, "we’re continuing to approve development after development."

DiPrimio says he’d like nothing more than to see the plume cleaned up, but in the meantime, wellhead treatment may become the order of the day. Perchlorate has been found in 563 wells across California.

"Groundwater contamination is becoming more and more prevalent," he says. "Eventually, we’ll be treating all our groundwater."

The author is a former HCN intern.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field Seminars for adults: cultural and natural history of the Colorado Plateau. With guest experts, local insights, small groups, and lodge or base camp formats....
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • CONNECTIVITY SCIENCE COORDINATOR
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....
  • HEALTH FOOD STORE IN NW MONTANA
    Turn-key business includes 2500 sq ft commercial building in main business district of Libby, Montana. 406.293.6771 /or [email protected]
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.