A POTENTIAL Southern California water crisis reached new heights in December when the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) Board of Directors rejected a plan to sell roughly 6% of its Colorado River water allotment to the San Diego County Water Agency. "Without water, Imperial Valley is nothing," IID Board President Stella Mendoza said during a heated meeting at which the board voted 3-2 to reject a deal that had been months in the making. The deal was seen as key to the state reducing its reliance on Colorado River water that will not be available in the future because other states want to take their full shares of the water (see CP&DR Environment Watch, December 2002). Interior Department officials said they would reduce California's use of the river starting this month unless last-minute negotiations made substantial progress. "Interior is not bluffing," agency Secretary Gail Norton told a Colorado River Water Users Association meeting in mid-December. "There will be an actual reduction." A reduction could have the biggest immediate impact on the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which has come to rely on 662,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water that has been "surplus." However, federal, state and some water agency officials said it is IID — which gets about three-fourths of the state's share of Colorado River water — that could feel the pain in the end. To which IID officials said, "See you in court." AFTER three days of testimony, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 on December 18 to certify a supplemental environmental impact report and record a master tract map for the Ahmanson Ranch project. In winning tract map approval, developer Washington Mutual agreed to destroy one water well on the site that is contaminated and to cap or destroy other wells. The vote ended the latest chapter in one of the longest and most controversial development sagas in recent Southern California history (see CP&DR Insight, December 2002). A general plan amendment and development agreement for the 3,000-home project were approved by the board, also on a 4-1 vote, in December of 1992. Since that time, new rare species have been found on the site and opponents have raised concerns about the discovery of perchlorate in at least one well that might serve the project. High-profile Los Angeles environmentalists, such as movie director Rob Reiner and actor Martin Sheen, have continued to oppose the project, rallying high-level opposition nationally. In the most recent round of hearings, former President Bill Clinton placed a call of opposition to Ventura County Board of Supervisors Chairman John Flynn, and Carole Browner, Clinton's environmental protection administrator, testified against the tract map approval. After the vote, project opponents indicated they would probably sue to challenge the approval but also expressed renewed hope that Washington Mutual would sell the property to a state agency for open space. CENTRAL Valley farmers will hang onto their exemption from state water quality regulations for runoff for at least three more years. The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board in December dropped a regulatory plan that would have ended the agricultural industry's 20-year exemption. Instead, the board backed a plan that calls for voluntary monitoring and reduction of pesticides. The board also said it would revisit the topic this year. The decision angered environmentalists, who threatened litigation. Industry representatives sounded moderately pleased but said they wanted to see the details of the board's plan. FORMER Carson Mayor Pete Fajardo has pleaded not guilty to a charge that he extorted $50,000 from an apartment complex owner who sought the city's assistance in converting the units into low-income senior housing. Fajardo was indicted by federal authorities in late November, as were current Carson Mayor Daryl Sweeney, two Browning-Ferris employees and a bankruptcy trustee. Most of the scandal involves alleged corruption related to waste-hauling contracts. Prosecutors also alleged Fajardo tried to extort $70,000 from a contractor on a city bridge-building project. THE Orange County Planning and Development Services Department decided to lay off 39 employees starting this month because financial troubles have swamped the agency. At least six senior-level planners and one-third of the county's building inspectors will lose their jobs. The job cuts came after county officials revealed the agency spent an $18 million "reserve" during the last three years and had a deficit of at least $2.5 million this fiscal year. Department Director Thomas Mathews, who blamed the deficit on a construction slow-down, proposed raising building permit fees by about 50%. But Orange County supervisors declined to hike fees until they received more answers about the agency's fiscal situation. A STUDY by the National Center for Public Policy Research's Center for Environmental Justice contends that Portland-style "smart growth" restrictions raise the cost of housing, encourage "suburbanization" and do not reduce automobile travel. The study says that more than one million "young and disadvantaged" families would not have been able to buy homes during the last 10 years if Portland's growth policies applied to major metropolitan areas nationwide because prices would have risen an average of $10,000 in 2002 dollars. The study, by Portland-based economist Randall Pozdena, reads like an indictment of the Portland approach, which places an urban growth boundary around the metropolitan area. "Insidiously, the burden of site-supply restrictions will fall disproportionately on poor and minority families," he writes. The study, called "Smart Growth and Its Effects on Housing Markets: The New Segregation," is available at www.nationalcenter.org. The National Center study came on the heels of a report by the Latino Issues Forum that recommends California and its local governments adopt a number of "smart growth" measures that the organization believes would boost Latino homeownership. The report by Massachusetts Institute of Technology urban studies and planning professor Michael Mendez urges establishment of jobs-housing linkage programs, increased redevelopment funding set-aside for affordable housing, laws that require 20% of all developments to be for low- and moderate-income people, a stronger housing element law and state-local fiscal reform. "Smart growth allows for the development of communities where individuals and future generations can achieve economic security, social well-being, and a higher quality of life, while preserving the ecological integrity of the region," the report states. The study, called "Achieving Equity: Reality and Prospects of Latino Homeowners in California," is available at www.lif.org/publications/reports.html. A NEW zoning ordinance that permits developments to have with retail businesses, neighborhood services and child-care facilities on the ground floor, and housing on upper floors, has received approval from the Los Angeles City Council. The mixed-use ordinance, which stemmed from recommendations by a housing task force, eliminates the need for developers to get variances for such projects. The city now must decide where to apply the new zoning. THE Fresno City Council has adopted a general plan that focuses growth in and near the existing city. Although not as aggressive as earlier proposed, the blueprint directs 80% of growth through 2025 inside the city's existing sphere of influence (see CP&DR Local Watch, September 2000). A PLAN that would athorize construction of six new gates and allow more passengers and flights at John Wayne Airport in Orange County was approved by the county and the City of Newport Beach in December. The plan essentially would extend a 1985 court settlement regarding airport operations. The plan would allow passenger growth of 25% to 10.8 million annual passengers by 2011. It also would permit an increase in gates from 14 to 20, and allow 16% more flights per day. The plan still needs Federal Aviation Administration approval. A SEAL Beach housing development was shut down by the California Coastal Commission until developer John Laing Homes and American Indians can reach an agreement on how to deal with 22 graves discovered during construction last year. Work on the 70-home project halted in September, when Indians and archaeologists confronted construction workers. Commission Executive Director Peter Douglas quickly issued a cease-and-desist order. Now the project is on hold until the commission approves a mitigation plan.