Water & Drought

They are building 11,000 new homes in Folsom. But will there be enough water?

25,000 people will live here someday. See drone footage of what it looks like now

Construction of a massive new housing community featuring 11,000 new homes in Folsom is about to get started. Drone footage shows what it looked like south of Highway 50 in May 2018.
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Construction of a massive new housing community featuring 11,000 new homes in Folsom is about to get started. Drone footage shows what it looked like south of Highway 50 in May 2018.

It's like a new city springing to life: 11,000 homes and apartments, seven public schools, a pair of fire stations, a police station, a slew of office and commercial buildings and 1,000 acres of parks, trails and other open space. Expected population: 25,000.

But will it have enough water?

As construction begins this month on the first model homes at Folsom Ranch, a 3,300-acre development in the city of Folsom south of Highway 50, state regulators continue to have questions about the project's water supply. They still aren't convinced the city has secured enough water to keep showers and spigots flowing as California contends with increasing uncertainty about rain and snowfall.

City officials plan to keep Folsom Ranch hydrated by using water gained from conservation efforts elsewhere in Folsom, and they insist the water will be sufficient. The State Water Resources Control Board, though, has told the city that those savings might not be enough over the long haul.

"It is premature to conclude that there is enough long-term savings to support the Folsom South Area," the board told city officials in a letter last September. "California is likely to see many more droughts in the future."

During the drought, the state board issued moratoriums halting 21 small communities, from Kyburz in El Dorado County to Big Creek in Fresno County, from hooking up new homes with water. Board deputy director Darrin Polhemus said the orders are still in effect.

In Folsom, however, the state board isn't taking any steps to impede the development south of 50. State officials say, for now, Folsom isn't breaking any rules.

"It's kind of out of our bounds of jurisdiction at this point," said Erik Ekdahl, a deputy director at the water board. "In the future, if they start to take more water than they are licensed to, that's a different story. That's something we can enforce on."

The city, which gets most of its water from Folsom Lake, says the state's concerns aren't warranted. "The city has taken all necessary steps to confirm the availability and use of that water supply," city officials responded in a letter to the water board last fall.


The massive project south of Highway 50 covers 3,300 acres and will contain nearly 11,000 homes and apartments.
Folsom project map

Tensions over Folsom Ranch illustrate California's ongoing struggle to achieve seemingly conflicting goals. State officials say more new homes are needed to meet a growing population and lessen the state's current housing crisis. Meanwhile, cities also are being urged to cut back water use following the historic five-year drought.

Environmental groups warn Folsom Ranch could become a cautionary tale.

"That old approach of 'Build it, and the water will come' can’t work any longer," said Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute, an Oakland water-policy think tank. "We live in a state where increasingly all the water is spoken for. And the growing conflict between building more homes and accommodating a growing population is running up against limits to water availability. ... Their assumptions have been, 'We'll deliver whatever water is demanded.' Those days should be over."

Homebuilders in California started 113,000 new homes last year, or roughly half as many as what state officials say are needed to keep up with rising demand. Legislators last year agreed on a trio of bills designed to ease the gap; voters will decide in November whether to issue $4 billion in bonds aimed at providing affordable housing. Folsom officials have said Folsom Ranch will include affordable units in its housing mix, although it hasn't outlined any detailed plans for them.

A 2001 state law requires municipalities to demonstrate to state officials that they have secured adequate water supplies before they approve large-scale housing developments. Before the drought, the Legislature ordered cities to reduce long-term water usage, but also said they could use the saved water to serve new development. In effect, the savings can be categorized as sources of "new" water in development plans.

That's what Folsom is doing. For the past decade, the city has been conserving thousands of acre-feet a year by installing water meters and improving delivery systems. The Folsom Ranch developers also spent millions repairing leaky pipes in the city's existing water system, which adds to the water available to the project.

All told, the city has told state officials that they'll have 7,300 acre-feet of water each year to feed Folsom Ranch. The development will need less than 5,600 acre-feet when the new community is fully built. An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons, enough to supply one to two average households annually.

"The city would have (a) sufficient amount of water to serve (Folsom Ranch) in both normal and dry years," the city's environmental and water resources director Marcus Yasutake said in a letter to the state last fall.

Folsom Ranch's development website says the water supply is "a bedrock principle." Homebuilders say they're convinced the city has done what it needs to do to keep water flowing to the people who will eventually buy the homes that range from the high $400,000s to $1 million.

"It has been part of our whole planning process," said Kevin Carson of the New Home Co., which plans 1,000 homes in the Russell Ranch segment of the development. "We feel comfortable with the city of Folsom ... and their assessment" of the water supply.

Folsom Ranch has been on the drawing board for years. To prove it was following the state's rules, Folsom in 2013 took the unusual step of essentially suing itself through what's known as a "validation suit." The city's attorneys sought a court declaration that Folsom had properly lined up water supplies for the big development. A Sacramento Superior Court judge signed off.

Construction is underway on homes along Scott Road in Folsom south of Highway 50 on Wednesday, June 13, 2018. Randall Benton rbenton@sacbee.com

But some experts say the policy that allows cities such as Folsom to use conserved water to count toward new developments could prove dangerously shortsighted as droughts become more common with California's changing climate.

After all, the whole point of "conserved" water is storing it for when it's needed for "a not-so-rainy day," said Jeff Mount of the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonprofit think tank.

"The best strategies for growth are to find real, new water supplies ... to meet that growth so that you have some cushion for a drought," he said.

Meanwhile, state officials have allowed development to proceed even in areas with water supplies already proven to be shaky.

In 2015, during the drought, the San Joaquin County community of Mountain House, a decade-old housing development with 12,000 residents near Tracy, faced potentially catastrophic water shortages after its wholesale supplier, the Byron Bethany Water District, had its water rights curtailed by the state.

Disaster was averted when Mountain House purchased surplus water from a neighboring irrigation district. Mountain House remains under a state order to find new sources of water to diversify its supply portfolio. But that hasn't slowed down development. Mountain House still is building as many as 500 new houses a year.

"California is definitely feast or famine; everybody's growing and supplies are tightening," said Edwin Pattison, general manager of the development's community services district.

The drought, which officially ended last year, seems to have done little to impede development. No cities or counties appear to have curbed their development plans as a direct result of water-supply limitations, said contributing editor Josh Stephens of the California Planning & Development Report, a newsletter that covers land-use and environmental issues.

Stephens said it's worth noting that new housing stock tends to use less water than the developments of decades past. "New development is generally more water efficient than older homes," he said.

They're required to be.

During the drought, the California Water Commission passed rules promoting drought-tolerant landscaping by limiting the amount of turf grass around newly constructed homes to 25 percent of the landscaped area. The largest source of water use in California's urban areas goes toward lawns. Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed legislation that pressures water agencies to reduce indoor use as well.

Indoor and outdoor water efficiency is a cornerstone in the new Folsom Ranch project, developers say. Ian Cornell, a spokesman for the project, said the area's parks and street landscaping will be irrigated with recycled water. Builders also are installing water-efficient landscaping, low-flow shower heads and faucets and high-efficiency toilets.

Folsom Ranch's critics aren't satisfied. They note that Folsom struggled to meet the stringent cutbacks Gov. Jerry Brown ordered cities to undertake during the drought.

Folsom also had its own water shortage scare not that long ago.

In 2015, during the worst of the drought, Folsom Lake's water levels sunk so low that crews from the federal Bureau of Reclamation had to build an emergency floating barge to keep water flowing to 200,000 residents of Folsom and other cities that rely on the reservoir.

The barge was equipped with underwater pumps that would have enabled the reservoir to discharge water even if the lake had fallen below the level of the intake pipes.

The pumps ultimately didn't need to be used, and the barge was removed from the lake. But with those memories still fresh, Alan Wade, former president of the Save the American River Association, said it's baffling state water officials would tell Folsom they had doubts about its water supply yet would let the development proceed.

"The reply from Folsom essentially told them to go pound sand: 'We're going to go ahead anyway,'" Wade said. "I don't know how you can get away with that."

Bee reporter Phillip Reese contributed to this story.

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow
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