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Build more houses! Use less water! California, can you have it both ways?

Thousands of new apartments will be built in Irvine, and this create cognitive dissonance for Stan Jones.

The planned 24-acre lagoon at “Cotino, Storyliving by Disney” in Rancho Mirage, and the 17-acre Wavegarden Cove Pool and Resort in Palm Desert, do much the same for Paul Burt of San Pedro.

Larry Anderson shakes his head, too. He tracks construction within a 40-mile radius of Hemet and counts more than 7,000 new units planned or already rising, even as the governor implores Californians to dramatically cut water use to deal with historic drought and officials scold us for falling short.

“If the water shortage is that bad, why is there such a boom in new housing development going up all over the place?” Anderson asked. “How can anybody believe there is a water shortage when this new building is going on?”

Homebuilding in Menifee, Calif., on May 18, 2021. (Jonathan Lansner/SCNG)

“If the governor wants us to cut the use of water by 15%, why do he and the state legislature (who have plenty of their local water to drink and irrigate their gardens) force water-shortage areas to build housing units that require more water?” Jones wondered. “Why aren’t there columns written critical of those that have plenty of water forcing us to have an even greater per household shortage of water?”

It might seem crazy on its face. But the water czars say those goals are not as incompatible as they appear.

More and less

First, officials point that California’s population is not growing, but actually declining. These new units won’t, at least theoretically, add people to the Golden State, but rather spread them around to (what they hope will be) more affordable and efficient digs.

Second, new construction and landscaping are far more water- and energy-efficient than even just a few years ago. These 21st-century developments use native plants and recycled water for landscaping, water-wise toilets and appliances and showerheads.

Filling up a glass with water from a kitchen tap. (Photo by Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Filling up a glass with water from a kitchen tap. (Photo by Getty Images/iStockphoto)

And third, there’s still a whole lot of room for conservation. In 2000, Californians used about 231 gallons per person per day. Today, they use about 85 gallons per person per day. Dramatic as that is, there’s still plenty of room for more, officials said.

“Interestingly, our drinking water use is down 10% despite a population increase of 13% since 2013,” said Nicole​​ Stanfield, spokesperson for the Santa Margarita Water District. “New homes and communities are more efficient than ever – with high-efficiency appliances, faucets have efficient flow devices, and landscapes use California-friendly plants rather than thirsty grass. Our new communities have many shared spaces and use recycled water to keep them green.

“We’ve always relied on imported drinking water in our region and have invested a lot of resources to reuse and store it locally. SMWD recently achieved its longtime strategic goal to recycle 100% of its wastewater. With the completion of OC’s largest recycled water reservoir, Trampas Canyon, in 2020, we can now store all of our recycled water rather than send some to the ocean.”

The long-term goal is to have 30% of the water supply be local by 2030. With limited access to groundwater – like much of Southern California – the South Orange County provider said recycling and desalination will be key to reaching the goal.

Edward Ortiz of the California Water Boards said there are still many things that Californians can do to save water both in the short and long term, including the embrace of drought-resistant plants, fixing leaks and only watering when and where it’s really needed.

Damon Micalizzi, spokesperson for the Municipal Water District of Orange County (which imports the stuff), said that conservation alone will never be enough.

“Does anyone really expect the governor to put up a ‘no vacancy’ sign for California?” he said. “If we’re ever going to get out of these perpetual cycles of conservation mandates and drought restrictions, it’s going to be the result of building infrastructure to shore up our current supply.

“California has a storage and delivery problem. The water is there. Climate change is just making it more difficult to capture. We’ve been talking about building things for years, and we haven’t broken ground.”

Reservoirs are needed to store what gushes into the sea when we get big, heavy rains, he said. The Delta Conveyance Project would modernize the delivery from north to south. Desalination would provide an entirely new source. More recycling would boost supply. “But you just can’t conserve your way out of the drought,” he said.

More homes

California ranks 49th out of the 50 states on housing units per capita, and the state is pushing, shoving, cajoling and threatening cities and counties to finally fix that.

A row of houses under construction is seen Thursday in Orland. (Matt Bates ??

Last year, Southern California leaders voted to adopt a new housing plan that will triple future homebuilding goals.

The region’s 191 cities, in six counties, plan to build more than 1.3 million new homes by the end of 2029 in response to state requirements that they quit dragging their NIMBY feet and build more, more, more.

Critics object that the 1.3 million-unit number is too big — like adding an entire Orange County and entire Ventura County to the region.

Our colleague Jonathan Lansner, who keeps his famous “trusty spreadsheet” and knows literally everything about real estate (and lots of other things, which he’ll happily tell you about), scoffed.

California builders filed permits for 119,000 new units in the 12 months that ended in May, about the same building pace as the previous four years, he said. “So for all the state bureaucracy’s homebuilding bluster … zippo has changed!” said he.

With about 14.5 million existing housing units, the current building pace is not even close to 1% of current housing supply. With residential water use comprising about 20% of total water demand — agriculture and industry account for most of the rest — “new housing equals maybe a 1/10 of a percentage point of water demand … an incredibly small puddle in the seas of purported water shortage.”

Not convinced

Skeptic Burt, retired from Northrop Grumman’s B-2 Bomber Program, thinks the powers-that-be are shortsightedly seeing only what they want to see.

Lake Mendocino in 2021. (AP Photo/Haven Daley)

Desalination plants should have been built 60 years ago, he said. Low water levels shrink hydroelectric generation from the Glen Canyon to the Hoover Dam. Cities that sit atop groundwater aquifers that are plentiful now may be in for painful surprises, he said.

“First, dendrochronology (tree rings) tell us there have been two droughts in California; one lasting about 150 years, another 200 years,” he said by email. “Think about that.

“If the current drought cycle turns out to be one of these ‘big ones’ — in the big picture — none of these feculent ideas to curtail usage that might ‘sound good’ will be enough, period! End of story.”

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