Durable Growth, Government

It’s time to be smart about water, not politically expedient

1410190001 Dry FountainDuring recent candidate forums, several contenders for the Petaluma City Council suggested that the City consider a moratorium on building permits until the drought eases.  I’ll speculate that other North Bay cities are entertaining similar thoughts.

I support the need to respond to the drought.  The water shortfall is significant, may not slacken during the coming winter, and could be indicative of a systemic change.  But a blanket moratorium is the wrong tool for several reasons.

First, a moratorium without simultaneous regulatory adjustments is tantamount to considering the drought a normal and random element of the climate cycle, thereby supporting a position taken by climate change deniers.

I’m not saying that candidates who suggested a moratorium are climate change deniers.  I’m sure that few if any of them are within that camp.  But they’ve mistakenly offered a position that aligns with a key proposition put forth by deniers.

(I won’t delve more deeply into a climate change discussion because I don’t want this post to be sidetracked into a discussion on the validity of the theory.  It’s a worthy topic, but not for today.)

Another problem with a blanket moratorium is that it doesn’t reposition our communities for when the drought may ease.  If we get enough rain to believe the drought is over and begin issuing new building permits without a change in the water use standards, we’d have wasted an opportunity to make our communities more resilient.

Lastly, we’re in a time when our communities should be evolving in responses to multiple challenges such as municipal finances and non-drought climate change issues.  A blanket moratorium, stopping all development, would impede our progress toward other goals.

Luckily, a better alternative can be conceived.  In place of the blanket moratorium suggested by the candidates, I propose a two-phase moratorium.  Initially, North Bay cities can impose a short-term moratorium on all building permits, but only for long enough to rework development standards to define water-smart standards for new or remodeled buildings.

Some will object that North Bay cities lack funds within current budgets, particularly if tax measures fail, to undertake code revisions.  The concern is legitimate, but Petaluma, and likely other cities, has a wealth of knowledgeable engineers and developers with water backgrounds, many of whom would probably be willing to offer their expertise toward writing new rules.  In fact, there may be an opportunity for regional code-revision cooperation.

Some effort by city staffs would still be required to incorporate the information into the zoning code, but it would be far less than if the staffs had to also develop the concepts without assistance.

Next, as the first moratorium expires and emergency revisions are made to the zoning code, a second moratorium would be imposed on projects that don’t meet the water-smart standards.  The duration on this latter moratorium would be indefinite, lasting until the city councils judge that the drought has ended.  If the more pessimistic projections on climate change are valid, the second moratorium may never be lifted.  Hopefully, that won’t be the case, but it’s a possibility.

The obvious direction in which these moratoriums would push residential development would be toward multi-family homes.  It’s easier to be water-smart without either a frontyard or a backyard.  And a move toward multi-family would likely include more housing in walkable urban settings, which I would applaud.

But single-family residential would still be possible.  I recently chatted with a North Bay single-family developer who is proposing use of a treatment system that would allow use of treated greywater from showers and washing machines for surface application.  (The greywater systems now used in a few locations around the North Bay only allow subsurface application.)

The developer estimated that he could save almost 20,000 gallons per home per year.  That would be 20,000 gallons of potable water that needn’t be treated and delivered and 20,000 gallons of greywater that needn’t be conveyed away for treatment at a municipal wastewater plant.

The system he proposes is in regular use in Europe and Australia, but unknown in the U.S.  It’s that kind of innovation and adoption that the proposed two-phase moratorium would foster.

Thanks to the Petaluma City Council candidates for raising the subject.  Now, let’s hone their idea and ensure that it best meet the needs of our communities.

Before closing, one other comment should be made.  The savings from requiring new or remodeled buildings to be more water-smart is worthwhile and, with the right technology, significant.  But those savings are dwarfed by the savings that could be achieved at existing homes and businesses.  Between retrofitted fixtures, changed landscaping patterns (my wife and I removed the last of our grass nearly ten years ago), and reduced consumption encouraged by more sharply tiered rates, water use at existing buildings can be sharply curtailed.

To fall into the trap of believing that we’ve imposed a moratorium and therefore solved the problem would be both wrong and harmful.  Instead, we must look into the mirror for the most important elements of water conservation.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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