Santa Clara River Litigation

Santa Clara River
A portion of the Santa Clara River, showing the river channel, with agriculture in the remainder of the floodplain. Photo by Bruce Perry, Department of Geological Sciences, CSU Long Beach. Used with permission.

Advocates for the Environment is the law firm representing environmental NGO plaintiffs in two important cases challenging the first two phases of Newhall Ranch, a huge housing development in and along the Santa Clara River. Dean Wallraff, our Executive Director, is lead attorney on these cases.

The California Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of environmental plaintiff NGOs in a related case, Center for Biological Diversity v. California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife (2015) 62 Cal.4th 204, discussed on our GHG page. Since the GHG analysis rejected by the Supreme Court in the CBD v CDFW case is essentially the same analysis used by the County and Newhall in the EIRs for Landmark Village and Mission Village, the first two phases of the Newhall Ranch project, we're almost certain to win those two cases.

The Santa Clara River is the last, mostly free-flowing (i.e. unchannelized) river in Southern California. We are trying to prevent the Santa Clara River from being channelized, like the Los Angeles River, which the Army Corps of Engineers encased in concrete between 1935 and 1959. As can be seen in the photo above, the floodplain – the large flat area surrounding the river channel – is much wider than the actual channel, which is the portion where water currently flows. Because of the dynamic way the river flow erodes and deposits sediment, the channel moves slowly within the floodplain, over a period of decades.

From an environmental point of view, the best policy would be to leave floodplains in their natural state. Only about seven percent of the U.S. is in a floodplain, so doing that would not impose a big economic burden on society as a whole. Floodplains are lands of high conservation value, because they are more aquatic than the surrounding land, providing habitat for flora and fauna, wildlife-corridor linkages, and water-related resources such as groundwater recharge and surface flows.

A second-best policy would be to use floodplains for low-intensity uses such as parks and agriculture. Doing this would allow the landforms to be left in their natural state. Periodic flooding would not be disastrous, with these types of uses, since flood damage could be repaired comparatively cheaply.

Placing housing, and commercial and industrial development, within the floodplain subjects these structures to periodic flooding. Even once-per-century flooding of buildings cannot be tolerated because the repairs are so expensive. The millions of dollars in damages to the City of Los Angeles and the area south of it in the floods of 1914, 1934 and 1938 led to the channelization of the Los Angeles River with concrete levees. The really was no choice, since the lax land-use policies of that era allowed buildings to be constructed adjacent to the river channels.

In the last few decades, Los Angeles residents have come to realize that their city is poorer in many ways because of the city's shabby treatment of the L.A. River. The river could be an aquatic greenway through the city, providing parkland to a city that is near the worst of major U.S. cities by the measure of park acreage per thousand residents. The river could help provide drinking water if it had a sandy bottom instead of a concrete bottom by allowing water, at times when the river is flowing, to percolate into the aquifers beneath the city. A river greenway would be a refuge for animals, and a stop for migratory birds. There are movements to restore the river to its former green state, but this restoration is expensive and politically difficult, due to the channelization and the high-intensity development in the river's former floodplain.

We should avoid making the same mistakes with the Santa Clara River, but we're heading in the opposite direction. The City of Santa Clarita and the County of Los Angeles have recently approved three large projects with substantial development in the Santa Clara River floodplain. There is plenty of other vacant land in the area which could be developed, so there is no need to develop in the river. But the politically-connected owners of the land through which the river flows want to squeeze the largest profit from their real estate. So they're planning to channelize the river for flood control so they can build in the floodplain.

Rivers such as the Santa Clara River are important public resources. This concept is reflected in the Public Trust Doctrine; under this doctrine, states such as California hold the beds of navigable waters such as rivers, lakes and the coast, in trust for the people of the state. It's not clear whether the intermittent waters of the upper Santa Clara River are "navigable waters" so it's not clear that the Public Trust Doctrine legally applies to the development projects that are the subject of our three lawsuits. Whether the doctrine legally applies or not, our public policy should be: Hands off the River! It's too important a public resource to allow any intense development within the floodplain.

There is a conflict between the property owner's right to get the most value from its land, and the public's right to make policy decisions about how important public resources such as the Santa Clara River will be used. That conflict should be resolved in favor of the public.