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Beyond Almonds: Cities Face Immediate Water Cuts, Long-Range Uncertainty

As California's drought continues to worsen, the state's 500-plus local governments face a twofold challenge: complying with state-mandated reductions in urban water use while at the same time planning for long-term development. While the state's housing needs are manifest – 220,000 units per year just to keep up with latent demand – the long-term water supplies required to supply new development and redevelopment have become less certain thanks to the drought. 

In the wake of Gov. Jerry Brown's recent executive order, many districts are imposing cutbacks on institutional users, such as park and school districts, and on homeowners collectively. But unlike the 1990s, only a few communities appear to be placing moratoria on new development as result of the drought. But experts predict that further water conservation measures – including more water-efficient new residences – could take the pressure off of development moratoria in the future.

The San Jose Water Company is one of the largest water providers at the high end of the reduction scale. It must cut 30 percent. That district is allocating thirteen 780-gallon units of water per home – as compared to the 2013 average of 19 units – regardless of a home's size. Homeowners will pay penalties for usage above their allocated units. Bakersfield is restricting outdoor water use to three days a week. 

The Association of California Water Agencies has posted a list of water agencies, an interactive map, describing their responses at http://www.acwa.com/content/local-drought-response. Much of the information refers to regulations put in place in 2014, as many cities and agencies are still rolling out their plans to comply with current state restrictions. 

One water official compared the statewide to rection to the drought to the "five stages of grief." "The first stage is denial," said Celeste Cantú, general manager of the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority. "I think we've pretty much moved past denial. We were in denial last year."

Executive Order & Responses

Roughly 40 percent of the state's water is "unused" and instead remains set aside for conservation, stream flows, and riparian habitats. Of the remainder, roughly 80 percent is used for agriculture and 20 percent for residential, industrial, and other urban uses. 

With the state's snowpack at less than 10 percent of average in what is now the fourth year of drought, Gov. Jerry Brown finally ordered mandatory water restrictions in March, when it became clear that the current rainy season was going to give little relief. 

A cascade of events and policies has followed that declaration, which ordered a 25 percent cut in urban use statewide. The state Water Resources Control Board has set conservation goals for the state's 400 urban water districts, with different reductions for different communities. Meanwhile, many of the state's farmers—including the almost growers who have become the symbol for thirsty agriculture – press on under their own set of water rules, many of which make their rights unassailable. (A group of farmers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta recently proposed voluntary reductions of 25 percent.)

DWR has established a sliding scale for cities depending on their per capital water use. Water-efficient cities – which tend either to have strong environmental policies and/or relatively poor populations – must cut only as little as 8 percent compared to 2013 levels. They include places like East Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, and San Francisco. 

The cities that must cut the most, 36 percent, are a mix of wealthy cities, like Beverly Hills and South Pasadena, and middle-class suburbs with relatively low density, such Hemet and Colton. Central Valley cities including Bakersfield and Redding are at the high end too; their hot climates lead to extremely high water use, partly because water evaporates quickly from irrigated lawns. 

"There's a lot of pushback on this from inland districts," said Jeffrey Mount, senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. "They feel that they're being unfairly targeted because their weather is warmer and it takes a great deal more application of water to have verdant lawns and gardens."

Districts that fail to achieve these reductions can be fined up to $10,000 per day. Cities and the water districts that serve them are employing a variety of penalties and incentives to compel residents to do their part. Gov. Brown's order and DWR's targets do not mandate the ways that districts must meet targets. They leave each district to develop programs, penalties, and incentives on their own. 

While Mount said that this laissez-faire approach makes sense because "no two districts are alike," Cantú said that many water districts are frustrated and, per the second stage of grief, "angry." 

"The water retail community is angry, and understandably so, because they've….successfully protected communities in Southern California from the impact of drought for years," said Cantú. "Now we need to step it up because our designed drought of 3-4 years—we've kind of exceeded that."

The Los Angeles Department of Water and power is restricting outdoor watering and is policing domestic runoff that flows into streets. DWP is also one of several water agencies to offer cash rebates for removal of lawns; a cottage industry of turf removal companies, such as Turf Terminators, has cropped up to remove residents' lawns for free in exchange for the proceeds from the rebates. (Lawns consume far more water than anything that takes place inside a home.)

One method cities are not employing is charging more to heavy users, as proposed by San Juan Capistrano. That approach, called tiered pricing, was ruled unconstitutional by the 4th District Court of Appeal, in April. 

A Few Moratoria

A handful of small communities have opted for the most extreme conservation policies: imposing moratoria on new water hookups as the drought has worsened over the past 1-2 years. 

"Some of the coastal communities that were particularly hard hit in the Central Coast will find themselves having to ask some very painful and difficult questions because they don't have a diversified water supply," said Mount. 

The perennially drought-prone community of Cambria, on a remote stretch of the Central Coast, instituted a water hookup waiting list in 1986. New applications are accepted according to projected water supplies in any given year. The list was closed to new applicants in 1990, and currently no applications are being approved. The upscale Los Angeles County city of South Pasadena, which is largely built-out, instituted a moratorium on new water hookups in July of last year. 

The Paso Robles Groundwater Basin instituted and "urgency ordinance" in 2013 requiring new development to offset its water uses at a 1:1 ratio. Given the scarcity of water sources in the Paso Robles area, this ordinance effectively acts as a moratorium on new residential and agricultural development. 

Some communities have pretty much run dry regardless of state targets and local policies. They largely include communities in the Central Valley that rely on tapped-out wells. For the most desperate communities, Gov. Brown approved a $1 billion package of emergency assistance. 

To Grow or Not to Grow

These cases of immediate moratoria and severely restricted development are, so far, anomalies. The vast majority of cities, large and small alike, are not deliberately restricting growth because of the drought. Ten or twenty years from now, water could be far more scarce than it is even today it could, effectively, be far more abundant. Both of these scenarios can occur regardless of whether normal weather patterns return. 

Many officials assume that the vagaries of long-term weather patterns will even out and that water supplies will return to normal. In that sense, curtailing development today because of uncertain future shortages could prove pointless and reactionary. 

"The governor's emergency declaration doesn't specifically step in and address the land use question," said Mount. "I think we're going to see more and more people talking about that as this drought grinds on." 

To optimistic planners and developers, four years of drought is nothing compared to the decades of anticipated development and population growth. The state projects an increase in population from 38 million today to 50 million by 2055. 

Santa Barbara city planner Renee Brooke said that her city council is not yet concerned about new development. "They see it being such a small percent of our overall water demands, they don't want to unnecessarily restrict development or a particular sector of our community," said Brooke. 

Flinn Fagg, planning director in Palm Springs, said that the idea of a moratorium "pops up occasionally in public forums" but that no such restrictions are being seriously considered. "I think development is going to occur based on the market rather than on water supply," he said. 

Growth in California is often seen as a force of nature, as inevitable as earthquakes if not rainstorms. 

"In my experience, growth happens regardless of whether you plan for it or not," said Cantú. In 2014, roughly 85,000 new homes were built in the state, about as many as the previous year, according to the California Homebuilding Foundation. 

One reason why development might continue is that cities' financial droughts may be more powerful than their hydrological droughts. Proposition 13, the 1978 ballot measure that curtails property taxes, is one of many incentives for cities to keep growing.  

"This is one of the perverse side effects of Prop. 13," said Mount. "It spurs communities to create new development in order to increase revenue."

Prius Desert

Some speculate, in fact, that the drought may be a blessing in for those who want the Golden State to keep on growing. For all the pains that cities and water agencies are now going through, this much is clear: the more comfortable Californians become with brown lawns, the greater the state's water supplies will be in the future. 

"One of the things we may see from this big push in conservation is that if conservation during this drought is kept in place afterward, that's going to probably free up a lot of water for development," said Mount. "That's one of the side-effects nobody thought about."

In other words, conservation methods adopted today are likely to stick around even when the rains return. 

"We've had a long history of being an oasis in the desert, especially Palm Springs and it was appreciated for its rather lush landscapes," said Fagg. "That attitude is changing…and I think people are generally aware of the severity of the drought that we are in and recognize that we do need to make some changes in our lifestyles."

Mount noted that the state's population has grown by 8 million since 1990 without an appreciable increase in domestic water use. 

Moreover, new development tends to be more water-efficient than many existing developments. So the marginal impact even of suburban single-family homes may be negligible. Dave Codgill, president of the California Building Industry Association, said that home built today, "have 50 percent reduction in the amount of water used in new homes compared to homes built prior to 1980." He noted that 9.1 million of the 13.6 million homes in the state were built before 1980 and may be ripe for retrofitting or replacement. 

Brooke, of Santa Barbara, confirmed that "new development can result in a reduction in water use overall just because everything is so efficient."

Any major development must comply with Senate Bills 610 and 221, a pair of addendums to the California Environmental Quality Act that require large developments – and general plans – to provide adequate water supplies for 20 years. Technological improvements, such as low-flow toilets, can be factored into a proposed development's long-term water needs fairly easily, according to David Todd, of the Department of Water Resources' Land Use Water Program. But shorter showers and xeriscaping may hold less promise for cities that want to grow. 

"If it was a behavioral thing, that would be far more difficult to document" for the sake of SB 610 and 221, said Todd. 

Codgill said that his industry is more than willing to institute further efficiency measures in order to keep up the pace of development. He supports the statewide application of the Model Landscape Ordinance and the speeding up of a "purple pipe" ordinance that was not scheduled to go into effect until 2017.     

"We definitely consider ourselves as an industry as part of the solution and not part of the problem," said Codgill. "I've made it very clear to the governor and the water boards that we're willing to do whatever we can to help."

On the opposite end of the planning spectrum from faucets and cactuses, new state planning strategies might also curb some of California's demand. Senate Bill 375, passed in 2008, is intended to reduce driving and greenhouse gas emission. But, by promoting compact development – which, by definition, includes less green space – SB 375 might also result in less use of thirsty landscaping. 

"I hope that is the direction that we go in," said Cantu, referring to SB 375.  That will give us a much more secure vision of what a resilient community will look like down the road. "more density…is healthier anyway. We can easily accommodate growth and have a robust economy and a healthy environment in our current (water) budget.

"I think this drought is a wake-up call that puts us firmly into the 21st century," said Cantú.