California Finally Gets Tough on Water, Too Little, Too Late?

Published on July 17th, 2015

By Joe Guzzardi
July 17, 2015

Now that California is well into its fourth year of a punishing drought, and with little rain expected until at the earliest late fall, state regulators are finally coming to grips with reality.  California is running dry, and new home owners will have to make harsh adjustments to their expectations.

Recently, the California Water Commission approved strict limits on the amount of water that can be used on landscapes that involve newly constructed homes, businesses and schools. Effective December 1, grass will be limited to about 25 percent of a new home's combined front, back and side yards. Owners of existing homes will not be spared. Any landscaping project on outdoor grassy areas with more than 2,500 square feet will be subjected to equally severe water cutbacks. The changes are anticipated to save about 20 percent of the typical water consumption in homes, and 35 percent on commercial construction.

The CWC’s ordinances are the latest in a series of steps California Governor Jerry Brown and other officials have taken to encourage deep reductions in water consumption. In April, Brown announced a 25 percent water cut for Californians, and shortly thereafter residents quickly gobbled up the $340 million the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California allocated for its turf replacement program.

Simply put, lawns are on the way out as are pools, the ultimate California lifestyle symbol. But the broader looming question is whether California will eventually be forced to impose a ban—or at least sharp reductions—on single-and multi-family housing. Over the next three years, California is expected to add 472,000 units with a combined 20,000 acres of new landscaping. Even allowing for the revised guidelines, those units will consume significant amounts of precious and increasingly scarce water.

The building industry is on edge, and worries that compulsory limitations on building may be inevitable unless the drought’s reverses itself, and rainfall levels return to normal. The California Building Industry Association, which employs 209,000 and contributes nearly $40 billion to the state’s economy, is positioning itself as part of the solution instead of a big contributor to the water problem.

The association’s chief executive officer, David Codgill, argues that new houses account for a mere 0.1 percent of California’s aggregate home market, limiting construction would have serious side effects. Among them, Codgill predicts, would be reduced inventory and higher prices especially in the affordable price range. Furthermore, Codgill argues that modern construction is water-efficient, and should set the standard for California’s future.

Because of the growing reliance on water-saving plumbing fixtures and appliances, new three-bedroom, single-family homes with four occupants consume approximately 46,500 gallons of water a year indoors, half of what the typical family used in 1980. Codgill has encouraged the California legislature to offer a rebate plan for people who replace their old plumbing fixtures with the latest water-efficient models.

Still, California may be at the rubber hits the road stage on water shortages and population growth. According to the California Department of Finance, the state’s population, which now stands at nearly 39 million, will soar to 50 million by 2050. Brown has finally awakened to California’s population crisis. But it’s hard to imagine how California will cope with a 38 percent population growth within the next 35 years unless Sacramento passes even more draconian water measures.


Joe Guzzardi is a Californians for Population Stabilization Senior Writing Fellow. Contact him at [email protected]

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