Can We Quench Both the Thirst for Housing and Housing’s Thirst?

Bird’s Eye View RGB
The City of Brisbane is asking the developer of the proposed Baylands community (represented in this rendering) to come up with a water supply for the project. Image courtesy of Wallace Roberts & Todd.

The San Francisco Bay Area is likely to be a lot more crowded in the near future, adding a projected 2 million people to the 7.5 million who already live here over the next quarter century. Planners traditionally focus on meeting housing and transportation needs as the region grows. But more people also means more demand for water — and choices we make today will determine how far our water goes in the future. Now, regional planners have begun to address the disconnect between land use and water supply.

Whether or not we have enough water for growth depends on factors including climate change and the way we grow. “Climate change is a little out of our control, so we should focus on what we can control: the urban form and water efficiency,” said Laura Tam, sustainable development policy director of SPUR, a nonprofit dedicated to urban planning. “If we can sustain the current rate of water conservation, we could add only a fraction of water use even if we add millions of people to the Bay Area,” she explained.

In 2010, California’s per capita water use in cities was 178 gallons a day. And by 2015, several years into our recent severe drought, that was down to 130 gallons a day. “One of the most encouraging outcomes of the drought is that we found out how much urban water use is discretionary,” Tam said.

Strategies for shrinking the water footprint of new housing include compact development, or urban infill comprising multi-family housing with shared green spaces. “The average urban housing unit is more water-efficient than a suburban house,” Tam said. Compact development has less landscaping, which typically accounts for one-third of residential water use statewide. In addition, perhaps a tenth of California’s water supply is lost to leaks, and compact development means shorter pipelines, which inherently reduce the chance of leaks.

Compact development can also help low-income people save money, in part by letting them live closer to work. When low-income people live far from their jobs, transportation costs can be as high as housing costs, according to a 2006 report from the nonprofit Center for Housing Policy. In contrast, living near a city center decreases transportation costs by an average of 40 percent.

Another way to keep growth’s water demand in check is water-neutral development. This approach offsets the increased water needs of new housing via a combination of conservation and retrofits to existing developments. “Many old buildings have old fixtures, and the amount of water you can save with new ones is very significant,” Tam said. Installing water-efficient fixtures could save 22.5 gallons per person per day, according to a 2014 report by the Pacific Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The East Bay Municipal Utility District requires water offsets when new housing is annexed to its existing service area. So far, the district has struck deals on six water-neutral developments, according to a 2015 report by the Alliance for Water Efficiency. Similarly, some Bay Area cities are requiring water offsets before moving forward on proposed developments, said Nicole Sandkulla, CEO of the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency (BAWSCA), which represents 26 water suppliers in Alameda, San Mateo, and Santa Clara counties.

The City of Brisbane, for example, is requiring water neutrality for the proposed Baylands development, 4,400 residential units on a former landfill and rail yard near the shores of the Bay. “The city says there’s not enough water and asked the developer to come up with it,” Sandkulla said. Likewise, Redwood City is requiring water neutrality for the proposed Saltworks development. This controversial project initially entailed up to 12,000 residential units on a former commercial salt production site on the edge of the Bay.

Moreover, the City of East Palo Alto is so tight on water that a building moratorium is in effect through the summer of 2018. And, said Sandkulla, other BAWSCA cities are short on the water needed to supply new development mandates proposed by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) under the forthcoming Plan Bay Area 2040. “ABAG is looking to push more people into the West Bay urban corridor, but some cities don’t have enough water,” she said. “ABAG needs to check in with water suppliers earlier — the focus has been on housing and transportation, but the other finite resource we have to address is water.”

In a letter to regional authorities last October, Sandkulla wrote, “We strongly urge you to work with local water suppliers to consider the long-term water supply reliability implications of your regional land use planning effort.”

ABAG’s current regional housing plan states that “local jurisdictions consider infrastructure requirements, including water and sewer capacity, when developing their general plans and neighborhood plans” but then adds that “this information is not used to limit a jurisdiction’s housing allocation.” In addition, there is little mention of the water supply in the current Plan Bay Area, which was adopted in 2013, said ABAG resilience planner Michael Germeraad.

But he does see signs of better coordination between land use planning and the water supply. “In the past, there was less pressure on discussions of growth and water,” Germeraad said, adding, “Now, we’re moving towards considering water earlier in the process.”

ABAG’s 2015 annual meeting focused on actions cities and counties can take for drought resilience, and in 2016 the agency began facilitating meetings between elected officials and water utilities to discuss growth. “Understanding the water supply could inform the development process — for example, we could build differently to reduce water consumption of new units,” said Germeraad, citing built-in dual pipe systems for drinking water and graywater as an example.

The need to plan our future water use is further intensified by climate change. In the years to come, the Sierra Nevada snowpack that provides much of the Bay Area’s water will likely be smaller, and the snow that does accumulate will likely melt before the end of the dry season, when we need it most. And, Germeraad pointed out, if our water supply drops as our population grows, “the water that we do have will be shared by more people.”

Robin Meadows covers water for the Monitor.