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Does the Bay Area have enough water to build housing during the California drought?

When Contra Costa County supervisors last summer signed off on 125 new homes slated for 30 acres of grazing land in the oak-dotted Tassajara Valley, they were warned water was going to be an issue.

Officials with the East Bay Municipal Utility District made clear they opposed extending the agency’s service boundary to send water to the proposed single-family subdivision just east of Danville, especially given the ongoing drought.

Supervisors pushed ahead anyway, and the utility district promptly sued to halt development plans.

“If there’s a request for us to provide water outside our service area, we typically oppose, and the reasoning would be that we recognize water is not limitless,” said EBMUD spokesperson Andrea Pook.

The fight over Tassajara Parks illustrates the challenges the Bay Area faces in its push to build many more homes to ease its housing affordability crisis, at the same time local water systems are under strain by a warming climate and years of drought. But experts and municipal planners say the region can still balance its water and housing needs well into the future – as long as it continues to bolster conservation efforts for homes and businesses while promoting denser development and finding sustainable ways to increase water supply.

“If we don’t get more efficient, we’ll be in huge trouble,” said Laura Feinstein, sustainability and resilience policy director with Bay Area think tank SPUR. “But with very achievable increases in efficiency, (meeting future demand) is totally doable.”

Starting in 2023, the state will require the Bay Area to approve over 441,000 new units by 2031, over double the region’s current eight-year housing goal.

The Association of Bay Area Governments – which allocates housing targets across the region – said in a statement that plans to focus growth in areas with existing water infrastructure, unlike the Tassajara Valley, could “ease water supply issues.” The agency also pointed to building more multifamily housing, which uses half as much water per household outdoor areas as single-family homes.

Water-saving home appliances, high-efficiency fixtures and drought-tolerant landscaping – all increasingly common in new developments – will also be key solutions, experts say. Already, state and local policies such as requiring low-flow toilets have helped bring down water use across the Bay Area, even as its population has exploded in recent decades.

In EBMUD’s service area, for instance, the population has increased 34% since 1970 to 1.4 million people, but urban water use has dropped 42%, according to the district.

“The reality is in California, we’ve really decoupled water use and growth,” said Heather Cooley, water program director for the nonprofit Pacific Institute in Oakland.

A recent report by the institute found adopting more water-efficient technologies could further bring down demand in California’s urban areas by 30%-48%. Another report by SPUR found such conservation efforts could enable the Bay Area to meet water needs through 2070, without finding new sources. But to boost supply, both reports suggested investing in recycled water, which is often used for irrigation, and stormwater capture.

All of that will cost money, of course. This month, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a plan to fund recycled water projects, desalination plants and reservoirs, plus rebates to replace lawns with native plant gardens or turf.

DANVILLE, CALIFORNIA – AUGUST 18: Cows graze on property along Camino Tassajara in the Tassajara Valley which may be developed into 125 new homes in Danville, Calif., on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2022. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) 

Despite new conservation programs in recent years, some agencies have resisted or blocked development because of drought or other water concerns.

Pook with EBMUD declined to comment on the Tassajara Parks project, citing the ongoing lawsuit. But she said the district has since at least the 1980s rejected most developments beyond its service boundary. The policy helps ensure the district has enough water for its customers in Alameda and Contra Costa counties through 2050, she said, or until its service population reaches 2 million.

“If the drought was not here today, we would still say no,” Pook said of Tassajara Parks.

In 1999, EBMUD settled a similar lawsuit with Contra Costa County over extending the district’s service area to part of the 11,000-home Dougherty Valley subdivision in nearby San Ramon. A neighboring water district eventually agreed to service the project.

Two additional lawsuits – one by environmental groups and one by the city of Danville – have also been filed to halt Tassajara Parks, each arguing the development violates the county’s urban growth boundary. Neighbors, who have long pushed back on growth while facing their own water supply issues, gathered 5,400 online signatures against the project.

Farther north, Marin County’s main water district last summer weighed an emergency pause on new water connections after its local reservoirs fell to dangerously low levels. On the Monterey Peninsula, meanwhile, the primary water supplier has imposed a decade-old ban on water hook-ups to protect the overdrawn Carmel River, halting most development. And in East Palo Alto, the City Council in 2016 phased in a two-year moratorium on new projects, blaming a small water allocation from San Francisco’s water utility.

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA - August 17: Construction workers work at a residential development site on North First Street in San Jose, Calif., on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)
SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA – August 17: Construction workers work at a residential development site on North First Street in San Jose, Calif., on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

Still, experts say those examples don’t reflect the situation for most of the Bay Area. That’s mainly because unlike the North Bay and Central Coast, which rely on more precarious local water sources, the region’s population centers get most of their water from massive reservoirs fed by runoff from the Sierra Nevada – though a significant portion of the South Bay’s water supply is local.

“That’s really how the Bay Area has prospered because we claimed the right to this water a hundred years ago,” said Feinstein, the policy director with SPUR.

The largest water user in the entire state, however, is agriculture, accounting for 80% of all consumption. Any attempt to shift some of that water for housing, said Cooley with the Pacific Institute, would mean paying farmers for rights to their water while weighing the impact on agricultural communities if fields go fallow.

“It sounds simple – clearly there’s water to be had there – but there are challenges,” she said.

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