Water & Drought

Sacramento wants to grow; will drought say no?

The city of Folsom plans to add 10,000 housing units on rangeland south of Highway 50 over the next few decades, relying on continued conservation efforts to provide water supplies.
The city of Folsom plans to add 10,000 housing units on rangeland south of Highway 50 over the next few decades, relying on continued conservation efforts to provide water supplies. Sacramento Bee file

Blessed by its perch at the confluence of two major rivers, the Sacramento region has grown for generations in sprawling style, confident that water would be there in ample supply.

Even now, amid a historic drought that has prompted deep, state-mandated water cuts for urban users, capital area leaders show no sign of backing off their plans for another major growth surge. The six-county Sacramento region is projecting 285,000 new housing units over 25 years, expanding the region by nearly 30 percent. Much of that growth is envisioned as the sort of suburban expansion that has made Sacramento residents among the biggest water users in the state.

With water cutbacks now a near-daily headline, those expansion plans are starting to raise questions. Are local leaders failing to recognize a harsh new climate reality? Or are they simply avoiding the mistake of overreacting to temporary conditions?

In recent interviews, officials in Sacramento, Folsom and other cities said that economic growth is both inevitable and desirable, especially as the area works to dig itself out of recession. The Sacramento region, they contend, has adequate water supply for residents this year, even in drought, and enough water in the long run for both new and existing residents.

“We cannot unplug our economy every time we get to a critically dry year,” said Timothy Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies. “This drought is a humdinger, but we’ll survive this.”

The state is clearly entering unprecedented territory. Gov. Jerry Brown in April ordered the first-ever mandatory cutbacks in urban water consumption. In response to his order, the State Water Resources Control Board last week issued regulations requiring urban water agencies to reduce usage on average 25 percent compared with 2013 consumption. Many Sacramento agencies have been ordered to cut usage by 36 percent, a category reserved for the heaviest per capita users.

The cutback orders are in effect through next February. And state officials have left no doubt they plan to push for permanent conservation measures that will reshape residential lifestyles in the years ahead.

For now, though, it’s largely business as usual for local developers and land planners.

The city of Sacramento will begin issuing permits next month for up to 1,500 housing units a year in its Natomas community, with an ultimate expectation of 14,000 new residences there. In south Sacramento, the first streets are going in for an expected 5,200 new residents near Interstate 5 in what will be called Delta Shores.

Rancho Cordova, Elk Grove and Sacramento County have been laying plans for tens of thousands of homes in open fields on the county’s eastern flank. Similarly, in Placer County, Roseville expects 19,000 more homes in the next two decades, and Lincoln 11,000.

The city of Folsom came close to losing its access to Folsom Lake water last year when the drought dropped reservoir levels extremely low. Yet Folsom officials plan to launch groundwork as early as this summer for potentially 10,000 housing units south of Highway 50. That housing would be built incrementally over decades.

Folsom City Manager Evert Palmer two weeks ago issued a seven-page position paper to the community, acknowledging the importance of conservation, but asserting the city’s right to grow. “Carefully planned growth is a part of Folsom’s legacy,” he wrote. He warned that “limiting new housing construction in Folsom would only serve to harm Folsom’s housing opportunity and local economy.”

Folsom resident Ray Marks is wary of his city’s zest for more subdivisions. Marks took out half of his backyard lawn last fall, replacing the grass with bark and decomposed granite, in response to a city call for conservation, but complains, “You can’t turn your head in Folsom without seeing new construction projects. Where is this water going to come from?”

Making do with less

Some water experts and environmentalists warn that communities should not continue basing growth plans on the assumption that the water access they have today will be viable in future years. Last year was the hottest in recorded state history, and scientists say they expect higher temperatures, lower snowpack and less of the snowmelt critical to the state’s freshwater supplies in coming years.

Ron Stork of the Friends of the River environmental group in Sacramento urged caution when deciding how many new subdivisions should go up. “It’s not the same as saying, ‘Oh, this year we can’t plant our tomatoes,’ ” he said. “Once you’ve planted houses, you have to get water to them.”

Local water districts say they have been working for years to increase Sacramento’s resiliency for this and future droughts. They note they have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to create extensive ground and surface-water management systems. The Sacramento region once was over-drafting its groundwater supply. Thanks to regional cooperation, that water table is on the rise again.

But Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which provides water to half the state’s residents, said this drought has driven home the lesson that water is a limited resource, and that providers may have to make do with less.

“That is the scary thing,” he said, “that maybe it wouldn’t be there. That will be a real difficult game changer for us.”

State Water Resources Control Board scientist Max Gomberg, one of the architects of the governor’s water restriction plan, said cities can be forgiven for not dealing with long-term growth questions right now. They have their hands full dealing with this year’s unprecedented mandates for dramatic cuts in usage.

“The focus right now is how to deal with immediate emergency of the drought, not on long-term,” Gomberg said. “This is a pedal to the metal moment.”

Even so, cities across the state will be required later this year to review their growth plans with water in mind. California cities and water agencies are required this year to update their “urban water management plans,” assessing how much water they expect to have available over the next 20 years, and matching that up with growth expectations.

The updates, required every five years, include writing a water-shortage contingency plan in case of a three-year drought. Some state officials say cities and local water agencies should consider planning for a five-year drought instead, and look at growth beyond 20 years. California’s drought is in its fourth year. Australia recently suffered a 10-year drought.

Several local officials said they believe the assessments will show there is adequate water. Notably, those analyses will be conducted before the full reach of the current drought is known.

Rancho Cordova public works chief Cyrus Abhar is among those who said he thinks his city can grow as planned, but that the evidence of climate change tells him to be watchful. “My thought is we would have to reassess this in five or 10 years to see if this is any different from the prior cycles of drought.”

More rocks, smaller lots

A general agreement is emerging on one growth issue: The region cannot continue to routinely build the type of large lot housing with water-guzzling landscape that has come to symbolize suburban living. Folsom City Manager Palmer acknowledged that in his paper on Folsom’s water conservation and growth plans. “State policy has long favored high-density, transit-oriented development over the lower-density, suburban-style development with front and backyards typical in Folsom,” he wrote.

To a degree, that new reality already is reflected in Folsom’s growth plans south of Highway 50. Lots will be smaller overall, and communities will have a tighter, more urban feel. The city plans to use non-drinkable water to irrigate landscape at parks, schools, medians and open-space areas in the development. The new houses will follow state rules on low-flow interior appliances as well.

That same transition is happening elsewhere in the region. “We’re already dealing with smaller lots than we’d seen, more extensive use of rocks and (low-water) groundcover,” said Dave Cogdill, president of the California Building Industry Association. “Swimming pools, people will start to evaluate those differently.”

The question is, how much extra water will new development use? Cogdill and others say new houses will be the most water-efficient ever. He contends that most residential water waste will be in existing houses with older, inefficient toilets and sprinkler systems.

Some state and local officials say that new growth doesn’t have to mean extra water use. Southern California water providers boast that they added 5 million residents in the last two decades without using extra water, thanks to extensive conservation measures.

“I remain confident that we can grow ‘water neutral,’ ” said Kightlinger of the Metropolitan Water District, an agency that says it has achieved “net zero water use” when adding new housing. “For the next 25 years, our plan is to continue that.”

But Tom Gohring, head of Sacramento’s Water Forum, a group of two dozen local cities, water districts and environmental groups, said water-neutral growth is not expected to happen here. That type of growth typically occurs, he said, when urban areas expand into agricultural land that already was being irrigated. In that scenario, the water going to urban expansion replaces the water used for farming. Much of Sacramento’s development is planned on what is now unirrigated rangeland.

“We will use more water in the future,” Gohring said. “Not on a per capita basis, but on a total net basis, we will use more water.”

Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute in Berkeley said it’s time for water experts to speak up during growth debates. Local water agencies need to be a more integral part of the process, he said, when city councils are reviewing development proposals.

“They have been pretty passive,” Gleick said of the water managers. “Their assumptions have been, ‘We’ll deliver whatever water is demanded.’ Those days should be over. We need to integrate (water and land-use) planning in ways we have not done before.”

Call The Bee’s Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059.

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