Drought beginning to change how people think about growth in the Sacramento region

More people are coming. More water probably isn’t.

Sacramento area leaders are planning for hundreds of thousands of new homes in the coming decades, pegging the region’s economic growth to population growth and new housing starts. Those new residents – along with their houses and lawns – could gulp 50 billion additional gallons of water per year by 2035, if population projections hold and if they consume in the same manner as current residents.

At the same time, California and the Sacramento region are gripped by historic drought. Water districts around the region are calling for residents and businesses to cut water use by at least 20 percent. Farmers throughout the Central Valley are fallowing fields and drawing down groundwater stores because the state and federal water systems that distribute surface water in California have none to send. Folsom Lake, one of the region’s primary reservoirs, is so low that some water agencies say they may not have enough water to meet typical demand come summer.

So how can the region add hundreds of thousands of people without adding more water? And does the state’s water crisis factor into the discussions as cities and counties surge forward with new development?

Local officials are charged under state law with determining whether new subdivisions have an adequate and reliable water supply. But those conversations traditionally have taken a relaxed tone in the Sacramento region, which sits at the confluence of two major rivers, the American and the Sacramento.

“In the past, the basic stance of the average developer and average water provider has been, ‘There’s plenty of water out there,’ ” said Mike McKeever, chief executive officer for the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, a regionwide planning agency. “At the moment, that premise seems like it’s almost certainly false.”

The drought is starting to change how people think about growth, said McKeever and more than a dozen local officials, water-conservation experts and planning officials interviewed. It could be a needed jolt for leaders and residents, several said – a trigger for action similar to the urgent conversation about levees and 100-year storms that emerged in flood-prone Sacramento after Hurricane Katrina buried New Orleans under several feet of water.

It could also be a chance, some said, for everyone involved in Sacramento development to accept some hard truths. Among them: Residents will have to use less water to make room for new neighbors. The era of large lots and lush lawns is ending. And water-supply issues deserve the same level of attention that government leaders give to levees, traffic and sprawl.

With six inches of rain last year, Sacramento had its driest year on record. “This isn’t the Sahara,” said Robert Glennon, author of “Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What to Do About It.” “If that isn’t a wake-up call, what is?”

No one seems to be talking about the region not growing – even water conservationists say housing expansion is inevitable. The state Department of Finance predicts the Sacramento region will grow from about 2.2 million people today to roughly 2.8 million people by 2035. That translates to demand for 50 billion additional gallons of water each year, given current use patterns.

The good news: Sacramento has more room for improvement than much of the state when it comes to conserving water.

Ellen Hanak, a researcher and water expert for the Public Policy Institute of California, expressed confidence when asked if Sacramento can find a way to continue adding people without using more water, noting that households in the region use far more water on average than in other areas of the state. Urban and suburban residents in the Sacramento River basin consume about 280 gallons of water per person per day, far outpacing the state average of 198 gallons.

“You certainly have a lot of potential,” she said.

Water-saving pressure

Sacramento has been at this crossroads before and made strides. The region has hundreds of thousands more residents than it did a decade ago, but it uses about the same amount of water. The city of Sacramento has cut water use by roughly 6 billion gallons a year, or 12 percent, in the last decade, largely through water-efficient fixtures in new homes and increased awareness.

“I think we can do more,” said Dave Brent, the city’s director of utilities. “I think we are doing more.”

A similar trend played out statewide. California added 3.3 million people between 2000 and 2010, and overall water use barely budged.

But tomorrow’s conservation will look different from yesterday’s and may require more work, several experts said. The conservation measures of the recent past have largely relied on new indoor technology such as low-flow shower heads and water-efficient toilets.

Water needed for future growth increasingly will come from changing behavior instead of changing appliances. Los Angeles has reduced systemwide water demand by about 25 percent since 1990 – despite adding 5 million people – by going beyond traditional appliance rebates and paying residents to use rain barrels and soil moisture sensors, and to take out their lawns.

Most governments in the Sacramento region haven’t gone to such lengths, particularly when it comes to lawns and sprinklers. According to several experts, a major hurdle will be getting developers and homeowners to let go of the assumption that landscaping necessarily involves an expanse of green grass. Most water used in Sacramento homes goes toward landscaping.

“You’ve got to get people’s tastes to change,” Hanak said.

In recent years, the state has started to apply more pressure. By law, all urban water districts in California must decrease water usage per person at least 20 percent by 2020. By 2017, all pre-1994 homes must be retrofitted with low-flow plumbing fixtures in showers and toilets.

Locally, the drought has brought calls for conservation, but most of that is voluntary. In Sacramento, a requirement that households and businesses cut water use by 20 percent is being enforced mainly by the honor system. About half of the city’s residential water connections are still unmetered, meaning customers have no concrete way to measure their efforts. The city faces a 2025 deadline under state law to finish metering all customers.

“You can’t manage what you can’t track,” Glennon said.

One way to cut lawn water use is to shrink lot sizes, and in recent years, cities around the region have committed to smaller lots.

The region’s local governments in 2004 adopted the Blueprint for Sustainable Communities, which called for about half of new, detached single-family homes eventually to be built on small lots. Less than a quarter of single-family homes built in the region between 2001 and 2012 met that standard.

Lot sizes for new homes have shrunk over the last decade – but at a slow pace. The median lot size for detached homes built between 2005 and 2012 was about 6,900 square feet, down roughly 3 percent from the median lot size for new homes built between 2001 and 2004, according to a Sacramento Bee review of housing-permit data.

“The building industry, like a lot of America, doesn’t push hard until their backs are against the wall,” said Greg Paquin, president of the Folsom-based Gregory Group, a consultant to the new home industry. “We may be getting to that point where have to be creative and find solutions.”

Fluid planning

Lot sizes vary widely by jurisdiction. In the city of Sacramento, the median lot size for a new single-family home built during the last decade was 5,500 square feet. In Granite Bay – where water use per person is more than double the statewide average – the median lot size was 16,087 square feet.

Still, homebuilders point to various projects in the pipeline as proof they are committed to smaller lot sizes and lawns.

Local builders increasingly develop homes with outdoor irrigation sensors that know when it’s raining or too moist to water. At KB Home, one of the state’s largest homebuilders, that includes landscaping with native and drought-tolerant plants and reduced lawn sizes with more shrubbery and rocks, said Dan Bridleman, senior vice president for sustainability, technology and strategic sourcing.

“We’re looking at how people use water, how the house itself uses water and things we can do to limit water use outside,” he said.

David Ragland, a Granite Bay builder and chairman of the North State Building Industry Association, said low-intensity landscaping will be more common. “We’re all at the front edge of that trend,” he said. “Smaller lots in the last six, seven, eight years – that in itself reduces the amount of landscaping to irrigate. We’re going to see that trend continue moving forward.”

People may be talking about shrinking lots, but they’re not talking about shrinking cities.

The city of Folsom recently approved development south of U.S. Highway 50 that will bring thousands of homes. The grassy foothills, brown and parched for much of the year, are so devoid of moisture that developer Angelo K. Tsakopoulos, who bought large swaths of land from ranchers and has been selling to builders, said, “jackrabbits carry their own lunch” there.

The city doesn’t have a plan for buying new water for those residents. Instead, it will use water conserved by current residents to supply new ones, officials said. The drought has not changed that approach or caused the city to consider delays.

“At this point, we really don’t know what the future holds, so we’d rather not discuss potential restrictions that may never materialize,” city spokeswoman Sue Ryan said.

That sort of conserve-and-hope approach to water supply for development will take city leaders only so far, several experts said.

A patchwork network of more than 600,000 homes is in the development pipeline across the Sacramento region. Saving enough water from current residents to make room for that many homes would require a massive amount of conservation.

Instead of assuming that will happen, the region needs to start planning for water supply like it plans for new roads – comprehensively and collectively, McKeever said.

“Where are the areas where the water supply is most likely to be plentiful, and where are the areas being planned for growth where water supply is most in question?” he asked. “We’re going to have to figure it out and figure it out fast.”

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