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Land Use And Water Rights

Dan Walters - Sacramento Bee - Editorial


They’re fighting over water in Sacramento, but lurking just below the surface is the real issue — how and where California develops land in the years and decades ahead.

They’re fighting over water in Sacramento, but lurking just below the surface is the real issue — how and where California develops land in the years and decades ahead.

In a semi-arid state such as California, whether land remains undeveloped, is cultivated for agriculture, or is covered with houses and shopping centers depends almost entirely on the availability of water.

That was true when Los Angeles’ civic and political gentry, eager for profitable land development in the San Fernando Valley, stealthily grabbed water from the Owens Valley a century ago.

It’s even truer today.

It is, in fact, now a matter of state law. Eight years ago, then-Gov. Gray Davis signed legislation, backed by environmental groups, that requires any major land development to have an assured source of water.

The legislation means that a developer not only needs a service agreement with a water agency, but must prove that the agency can, indeed, supply the water.

However, since water is an inherently variable commodity and since the California water system’s reliability has been further eroded by court decisions restricting exports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the 2001 measure has become a potent weapon in development battles. For example, opponents of the proposed 5,000-acre Tejon Mountain Village development in the Tehachapi Mountains are citing water supply.

The water legislation now being drafted in the Legislature sets forth the “co-equal goals” of improving both the reliability of the water supply and the environmental health of the Delta.

But were the flow of water down the California Aqueduct to Southern California to become more reliable, it would, in effect, make supply a less- potent factor in conflicts over Tejon Mountain Village and other big developments in Southern California.

The land-use factor is one of the reasons why environmental groups have divided over the proposed water legislation.

Those that focus on the Delta have embraced improved water-supply reliability as the price for environmental improvements in the troubled estuary (along, it would seem, with millions of dollars that would flow through their hands via a “land conservancy” program).

However, those that are more concerned with fighting land- use battles in the south state oppose the notion of building a canal around the Delta or otherwise improving water- supply reliability, implicitly because it would reduce their legal weaponry.

The flip side, of course, is also true. Land developers, seeing the current and potential impact of the 2001 water- supply requirement, know that improving reliability enhances their chances of gaining development permits from city and county governments if and when the recession ends and large-scale residential development becomes economically feasible.

The only certainty is that whatever we do, or don’t do, on water will have an immense impact on how California’s land is used.


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