As it rushes to the Pacific, the Santa Clara River has also surged into the court of law.

On Monday, Jan. 4, a coalition of environmental groups, including the Wishtoyo Foundation’s Ventura Coastkeeper, sued the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) for issuing permits approving the 12,000-acre Newhall Ranch housing development sprawling on the Santa Clara River in northwest Los Angeles County and eastern Ventura County.

Newhall Ranch development — one of the largest single residential development projects ever contemplated in California — violates the California Environmental Quality Act and the California Endangered Species Act, and threatens to profoundly alter a key stretch of Southern California’s last major free-flowing river, the Santa Clara, contend the petitioning environmental groups.

Newhall Ranch would create a new urban center of about 20,000 residences and more than 60,000 residents on a six-mile stretch of the river.

The DFG is permitting the filling of much of the Santa Clara River and its floodplain, the concrete lining of 20 miles of tributary streams, desecration of Native American burial sites and sacred places, and the destruction of a quarter of the San Fernando Valley spineflower habitat, a plant that had been believed extinct for decades until it was rediscovered in 1999, the lawsuit says.

“The project will impart irreversible impacts to the ecological integrity and water quality of the Santa Clara River watershed and Ventura’s coastal waters, and harm the well-being of watershed residents and visitors for years to come,” said Jason Weiner, associate director and staff attorney at the Wishtoyo Foundation’s Ventura Coastkeeper Program.

Additionally, Weiner said the Newhall Ranch development would enhance the risk of flood damage, and negatively impact the California condors and other rare/endangered plants and species such as the Southern California steelhead.

“We did receive notice from the plaintiffs, but have we have not been served or seen the complaint” as of Tuesday afternoon, said Kirsten Macintyre, spokesperson for the DFG.

DFG officials have, however, said the approved plan will preserve 70 percent of the nearly 14,000-acre area as natural open space, including preserves to protect 76 percent of the rare spineflower and 93 percent of the Santa Clara River corridor.

Developers must also establish a $6 million endowment for preservation efforts.

Additional plaintiffs in the suit are the California Native Plant Society, Friends of the Santa Clara River, Santa Clarita

Organization for Planning the Environment and the Center for Biological Diversity.

In another legal matter concerning the Santa Clara River, an $89,000 settlement was reached with the Wishtoyo Foundation’s Ventura Coastkeeper Program, which will fund the first-ever study of toxicity and contaminants in the river. Conducted by California State University, Channel Islands (CSUCI), the study will help state and federal agencies determine how problematic, if at all, the city of Ventura’s tertiary treated sewage effluent discharge is to the Santa Clara River estuary.

The lawsuit was filed last May against Standard Industries, an eight-acre scrap recycling facility adjacent to the river in Ventura, for inadequate stormwater treatment. The suit has been dismissed, and the $89,000 settlement agreement provides for Standard to improve its extensive storm water treatment infrastructure.

The new study will examine the 9 million gallons of effluent discharged per day into the estuary by the city of Ventura, which has concerned a number of environmental watchdogs. The study will be supplementary to a study already under way, known as the Estuary Special Studies. The two-year study, mandated by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, has been examining the impacts of discharge on species like the steelhead and on the ecosystem of the estuary and will conclude in March 2010. Though the new CSUCI study will not be completed by the time the results of the estuary studies are reported to the regional board, the data compiled will be essential to research.

“The answer is that there is going to be some impact,” said Dr. Sean Anderson, the study’s principal investigator.

“Nobody expects it to be perfectly clean, but how big is the impact?”

The discharge will be analyzed for acute and chronic toxicity and for emerging contaminants such as pharmaceuticals, caffeine, deodorants and personal health care products.

“These studies come at a very critical time,” said Weiner, “because emerging contaminants have long been a concern and currently aren’t monitored. This could ultimately require Ventura to make huge capital changes and investments in its discharge.”

In 2006, Ventura was fined more than $700,000 by the regional board for failure to correct problems at its wastewater treatment plant, which discharges into the estuary. The city has since invested $30 million in its wastewater treatment plant program and provisions, said city officials.    

shane@vcreporter.com