Durable Growth, Government

Water conservation standards: Smarter, but not smart enough

160517001 Landscaped FountainA few weeks back, I opined that calls to lift California’s drought-driven water conservation standards were at best premature and at worst wrong-headed.  Since then, the initial updates to the standards have begun to come forth.  They could be worse.  They could also be better.

Thus far, the State Water Control Board has floated a proposal to remove mandatory water conservation, replacing it with a requirement for water agencies to adopt water conservation plans that will allow them to meet public health and safety needs during three-year droughts.  Given recent weather patterns, it’s a reasonable approach.

But I still fear that climate change might make the three-year drought assumption an insufficient hurdle.  Perhaps not as a mandatory requirement but as an instructive stress test, I’d like to see the water conservation plans checked against a three-year drought followed by a year with 80 percent of historical average precipitation followed by another three-year drought.  I suspect the North Bay could survive the test, but I’m not sure about the rest of the state.

Meanwhile, the Governor and others are imposing water conservation measures, such as not allowing landscape irrigation for 48 hours after rainfall and requiring the use of nozzles for car washing, that will make water saving easier.  Earlier this week, Petaluma adopted new measures that included requiring not only the installation but also the use of pool covers.  As one Councilmember accurately noted, it was a “stop doing stupid stuff” measure.

But nowhere in all the discussion is my favorite approach.  How about encouraging land development patterns that use less water and less water-intensive energy?  Walkable urban development is the gold standard, and not just architecture that looks walkable, but neighborhoods and districts in which it’s reasonable for people to live without cars, conducting their daily lives on foot, bicycle, and transit.  We know those kinds of places use less water than sprawling single-family neighborhoods.

But there are other land-use options that could also make water conservation sense.  Further encouragement of accessory dwelling units is one.  Although my wife and I live on a small lot, we’re in a neighborhood with many lots of 10,000 to 12,000 square feet, with much of the area covered in light landscaping.  Facilitating small supplemental homes for the surplus land could add dwelling units with little impact on community water demand.

Water conversation is great, but treating our current land-use as fixed and then looking for water savings inside the paradigm isn’t digging deeply enough.  For many reasons, of which water conservation is only one, we should spend more time looking for solutions outside the box.

Before closing, I should note that the low water-use plantings in our former fountain are becoming established.  I anticipate the fountain being covered by the end of summer.  It can be a symbol of our new climate change reality.  And if anyone might wonder, our lawns went away years ago.

When I next write, I’ll introduce a small change in my publishing approach.  Those who email me in alarm every time I broach the possibility of adjustments needn’t be concerned.  I’ll hold the same publishing schedule, but will take a different approach to one post each week.  More details will follow next time, along with a small handful of “Why urbanism?” links.

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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