Losing Water, California Tries to Stay Atop Economic Wave

Published on August 21st, 2015

Adam Nagourney
August 20, 2015
The New York Times

Evening shadows of new homes fell on lots awaiting construction in Folsom, Calif. Amid a crippling drought, the city plans to add 10,200 homes.

FOLSOM, Calif. – Evert W. Palmer has a vision for this city famous for its state prison: 10,200 new homes spread across the rolling hills to the south, bringing in a flood of new jobs, new business and 25,000 more people.

Yes, Mr. Palmer, the city manager, is well aware that Folsom Lake, the sole source of water for this Gold Rush outpost near Sacramento, is close to historically low levels, and stands as one of the most disturbing symbols of the four-year drought that has gripped this state. And that Folsom is under orders to reduce its water consumption by 32 percent as part of mandatory statewide urban cutbacks.

But Mr. Palmer, like other officials who approved the ambitious plan to expand this city, said he was confident that there was enough water to allow Folsom’s population to grow to nearly 100,000 by 2036. It would be economic folly, he said, to run things any other way.

“That would create unnecessary economic hardships here to benefit others,” Mr. Palmer said. “And while I’m a citizen of the planet, I’m also paid to manage the home team.”

The drought that has overrun California — forcing severe cutbacks in water for farms, homeowners and businesses — has run up against a welcome economic resurgence that is sweeping across much of the state after a particularly brutal downturn. It is forcing communities to balance a robust demand for new housing with concerns that the drought is not cyclical but rather the start of permanent, more arid conditions caused by global warming.

At a time when Gov. Jerry Brown has warned of a new era of limits, the spate of construction, including a boom in building that began even before the drought emergency was declared, is raising fundamental questions about just how much additional development California can accommodate. The answer in places like this — and in other parched sections of the state, from the Coachella Valley to Bakersfield to the California coast — is, it seems, plenty.

“They say we can’t stop building and developing because weather is cyclical,” Jennifer Lane, a Folsom planning commissioner, said as she drove around Folsom Lake last month, where expanses of lake bed were exposed to the sky and recreational boaters had been ordered to get their vessels out of the water.

“They say we can’t stop building and developing because weather is cyclical,” Jennifer Lane, a Folsom planning commissioner, said as she drove around Folsom Lake last month, where expanses of lake bed were exposed to the sky and recreational boaters had been ordered to get their vessels out of the water.

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A City Embraces Growth Amid a Drought    Damon Winter/The New York Times

“I say we are looking at this whole new world here,” she said. “Global warming. Where are we going to get the water? As a planning commissioner, I say let’s be prudent. Is this the new normal?”

While state authorities can set some requirements on how things get built — such as recent restrictions on the size of lawns permitted for new homes, and a law requiring developers of projects of more than 500 homes to demonstrate where they will get water — decisions on land use are left largely to local city councils and planning commissions. And water consumption is not necessarily the first concern of local officials as they approve grand 25-year development plans, with their promises of jobs and tax revenues.
“It’s very hard to be a local elected official and say no,” said Max Gomberg, the senior environmental scientist for climate change with the State Water Resources Control Board, the agency with primary responsibility for regulating the water supply. “All the reasons to say yes are very powerful, starting with tax revenues. And of course, the self-interest of wanting to be re-elected.”

More than 280,000 housing units have been approved for construction across the Sacramento region alone, where Lake Oroville, a major source of water for the region, has also fallen to alarmingly low levels. Another 3,000 homes and two schools are planned for Shafter, Calif., outside Bakersfield in the Central Valley, where communities like East Porterville have run out of water. In Newport Beach, where seawater often seeps into the groundwater, a project to build more than 1,300 new homes has won approval from the City Council and is now before the California Coastal Commission.

Across the Coachella Valley, an inland stretch of Southern California dotted with oases of affluence, local planning officials are weighing applications for development in the desert, including 7,800 new homes approved by the city of Coachella last summer, even as authorities warn of continuing declines in the aquifer and in the Colorado River, which provide water to these communities. California has a population of about 38 million; it is projected to hit just under 50 million by 2050.

Folsom officials describe the expansion here as the kind of well-planned development that has characterized their trim and attractive city since it was founded in 1856. “Housing doesn’t create growth — people create growth,” Mr. Palmer, the city manager, said. “It’s happening all over California. When you are in the city business, you accommodate market factors.”

Mr. Palmer noted that Folsom was not now using its entire allocation from the lake, and said that he was confident there would be enough water to supply the future development on the books.

Ms. Lane said projects like this one, and others that continue to show up on the docket of the planning commission, stand in denial of the climate problems that are confronting a state that scrambles even in rainy times to find water needed for farming in the Central Valley and for the ever-growing spread of Southern California.

Ms. Lane, a retired elementary schoolteacher who has lived on a quiet neighborhood street here for almost 30 years, stopped her car at the edge of Folsom Lake to step out and snap a photograph of the declining water levels to post on her Facebook page. “This is why I’m going to vote against 300 more homes they want to build here,” she said. “See all that white out there? That should be water. And it is only July.”

Two Sides of a Shortage

The water shortage is sharpening a perennial battle across a state that has symbolized the pioneering growth of the American West.

On one side are people like Diane Underhill, a member of the Ventura Water Shortage Task Force, who has been pushing Ventura, 65 miles up the Pacific Coast from Los Angeles, to adopt a building moratorium.

“Ventura is in a multiyear drought with mandatory water rationing,” she said. “There is not enough water to serve existing businesses and residents. Ventura residents and businesses will pay more to use less water. Citizens want to know how we can, in good conscience, keep adding more new development under these conditions.”

On the other side are developers and many elected officials, who tend to champion growth and point to the state’s history of innovation and overcoming the challenges posed by nature.

“This industry produces close to $40 billion worth of economic activity for this state,” said David Cogdill, president and chief executive of the California Building Industry Association. “You have to seek a balance when you start talking about appropriate ways to deal with the drought. We think a limit on new construction will do more harm than good.”

As has been the case in previous droughts, there is no evidence that falling water supplies have resulted in any decline in construction. “We are in the fourth year of a millennial drought, and yet our urban economy continues to grow faster than the national economy,” said Timothy Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies. “We can’t unplug our economy every time we get a dry year.”

But many local officials and scientists argue that these are different times; that because of climate change, the state is witnessing not another cyclical drought but a new normal in which there will be less water. As Mr. Brown put it in announcing the mandatory water restrictions, “you just can’t live the way you always have.”

An aerial view of Folsom Lake, which is at 29 percent of its capacity.CreditDamon Winter/The New York Times

Accordingly, the question of economic growth versus the environment, which has animated policy and politics here since Mr. Brown first served as governor in the 1970s, is not as clear as it once was, reflecting a changing technological landscape, increased oversight by state water officials, and Californians’ increasing awareness of conservation, demonstrated most recently with a report that urban water use had dropped 27 percent in June, exceeding Mr. Brown’s 25 percent mandate. The homes being built today are different from the water guzzlers that once commanded sweeping lawns in communities like Shafter.

Homes now have low-flush toilets and restrictive shower heads. And they are surrounded, most critically, by less grass. Developers say there is less demand among younger home buyers for the vast lawns of their parents, and just to underline the point, the California Water Commission in July passed regulations restricting grass to no more than 25 percent of the landscaped area of a home.

A recent report by the California Homebuilding Foundation, an industry group, found that new three-bedroom homes built for four people needed 46,500 gallons of water a year for indoor use, half of what was used by homes built in 1980. And that did not account for water savings that would be presumably realized with mandates for drought-tolerant landscaping.

“I don’t think they should hold back building at all,” said Alex Martinez, a senior consultant with John Burns Real Estate Consulting, which does research for housing developers. “When you look at the data at how many gallons of water a new home uses compared to ones built in 1975, it uses at least half as much water. You look at who uses the most water: It’s largely agriculture. And on the residential side, it’s the old houses that use more water.”

In Coachella, Mayor Steven Hernandez said that given the Colorado River and the groundwater, he was confident that there was enough water to supply not only the 7,800 housing units approved last summer but an expected huge increase in the population, to 135,000 from 43,000, by 2035.

“I’m not worried,” Mr. Hernandez said. “As long as we can continue to recharge our basin, as long as we can continue to implement water conservation and invest in using water two or three times, I know we’ll do a great job of being around — we are not going to be in a water crisis.”

Mr. Hernandez acknowledged that the Colorado River was drying up, but noted that his city had acquired senior water rights to it nearly a century ago, putting it at the front of the line should cutbacks come.

“Before one drop of water was cut here, it would have to be cut off in Arizona and Nevada,” the mayor said. “We are going to fight for our water.”

The central question is whether water savings technologies in new housing, as well as some applied to old housing, such as new requirements for water meters and leak reduction efforts, can achieve what would seem an improbable result: no corresponding increase in the use of potable water from a significant population growth. “This generation of water managers are committed to knocking down per capita demand,” said Mr. Quinn of the Association of California Water Agencies. “We have enough water to build in California if we change how that translates into demand for water.”

In Sacramento, developers and environmental leaders drew up a regional plan in 2000 setting water consumption standards for new housing that officials here said should ease anxiety about the kind of building on the horizon for places like Folsom, which is 20 miles to the east.

“There is concern — when I read letters to our local publication, I hear voices of people who are wondering whether continued development is wise,” said Tom Gohring, the executive director of the Sacramento Water Forum, an organization of area water agencies and environmental groups that monitors regional water use. “The drought has hit us hard: I can tell you I’m not watering my lawn this year, and it’s pretty brown. But the water use in Folsom with the new development is expected to be the same as the water use today.”

So it is that state officials who are trying to manage the drought — seeking at once to carry out immediate reductions but also to cultivate long-term changes in behavior to accommodate increasingly dry times — have stopped short of suggesting that new building be curbed statewide.

“It is concerning to us at the state policy making levels that there may be areas of the state where development is putting an increased strain on water resources at a time when we know we are experiencing more droughts and more severe droughts,” said Mr. Gomberg of the State Water Resources Control Board. “And in certain parts of the state, that’s really problematic.”

“On the other hand, new developments are, by and large, pretty darn water efficient,” he said. “The developments taking place are not the old-school developments with a house on a lot and a pretty large lot and an irrigation system that just blasts water. The new development is not going to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”

A Front Line in the Battle

Newport Banning Ranch sits on 401 acres on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Newport Beach. For years, it has been the subject of one of the most environmentally charged battles in the state: Developers are looking to build 1,375 homes there, as well as a hotel and 75,000 square feet of retail space. The Newport Beach City Council approved the plan, and a court threw out a challenge by opponents who claimed that the project would violate state environmental laws. The matter is now before the California Coastal Commission, which has to approve any building along the coast.

Opponents are now invoking the drought, pointing to the already high use of water in Newport Beach, which at one point was ordered to reduce its water use by 35 percent. They are raising the question of where a new community of that size would get the water it needs to exist.
“I get it: Development means jobs,” said Penny Elia, a member of the Sierra Club there who has battled the project. “But if you don’t have the water, you don’t have the water.”


Home construction in a new development in Folsom.
The city manager, Evert W. Palmer, said he was confident there would be enough water to allow Folsom's population to grow. Credit Damon Winter/The New York Times

While the state can set long-term planning goals and study how population growth affects water consumption and air pollution, it is largely limited from imposing development limits or telling communities what kind of building they should allow.

“The state has not gotten into determining where growth should and should not occur,” said Peter Brostrom, the head of the water efficiency section of the state Department of Water Resources. “We are not trying to reduce California’s population or hold it in check as a water-saving measure.”

Builders and some municipal leaders argue that in many cases, longtime foes of development in places like Newport Beach have seized on the drought as a new tool. “The same old antigrowth advocacy groups are and will try to use this time of hardship to their advantage,” said Mr. Martinez, the real estate consultant whose clients are housing developers.

Yet for many community members, frustrated with local developers and City Hall, it is a matter of adapting to what they see as the reality of a new era.

“I think the water is going to run out,” said Jeff Morgan, a leader of the Sierra Club in Coachella Valley, which fought unsuccessfully to block the Coachella development. “Whether it’s five years or 50 years, I don’t know. But it’s going to run out.”
A version of this article appears in print on August 20, 2015, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Building Boom Refuses to Slow Amid Drought.

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