Forget the Drought, Experts Say CA has Lots of Water to Expand Forever

There’s a 60-year trend of Californians using less water. Angelenos now use 44 per cent less water per person each year than they did four decades ago

Don’t worry your pretty heads about the apocalyptic mega-drought that triggered historic new water use restrictions across SoCal as of Wednesday—some experts say California still has plenty of water for its never-ending expansion, according the Los Angeles Times.

Thanks to the state’s perennial housing crisis, hordes of elected officials are stumping hard for the construction of “millions of homes.” Governor Gavin Newsom campaigned four years ago on his promise to develop 3.5 million homes by 2025, a goal he re-set to a more realistic 2.5 million houses in the next eight years.

Jeffrey Kightlinger, who until last year ran the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the agency that delivers the water used by half the state’s residents, is often asked, “How in the world are you approving new housing when we’re running out of water?”

Simply put, there’s a 60-year trend of Californians using less water. If that continues—and add in some mitigating measures—there will be enough of the wet, wet stuff for everyone. For example, Angelenos now use 44 percent less water per person each year than they did four decades ago, according to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. And while California’s economy increased five times over and the population doubled between 1967 and 2016, water use only increased by 13 per cent, according to new research from the Bay Area think tank, the Pacific Institute.

And since 2007, both total and per-person water use in California has fallen significantly. “Total urban water use in 2016 was at levels not seen since the early 1990s,” according to the report.

“California has seen a major decoupling of water use and growth,” said Heather Cooley, the Pacific Institute’s research director and the report’s lead author. “We are using water more efficiently. Those efforts have been incredibly effective.”

And new development has gotten smarter, water-wise. Now, it usually includes more water-efficient showers.

There are other low-water opportunities waiting to be had with new development—like doing away with green lawns and “grassy median strips” and replacing them with native, often drought-tolerant, plants. Denser, more urban development will save water because it has less landscaped areas than developments featuring single-family homes with large yards.

“The reality is we use water so inefficiently and so poorly, there’s so much opportunity to change that,” Newsha Ajami, chief development officer for research at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, told the Times.

And to “accommodate” growth, already-existing housing stock can upgrade their water-use profile by “upgrading leaky pipes and old appliances, recycling wastewater, and capturing stormwater to replenish aquifers.”

Most of state’s water gets used without ever running through the average person’s faucets. A full 80 percent goes to agriculture, with 20 percent used in homes and businesses. And half of that 20 percent goes towards watering lawns, washing cars, and filling pools. It’s that 10 percent the new water restrictions are intended to curb.

But short-term drought restriction will look different than the long-term conservation needed to make sure that enough water is shored up for the millions of new houses needed to alleviate the housing nightmare.

“There’s long-term conservation ethic and there’s being super careful during a drought,” Ellen Hanak, director of the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center. “And when we’re talking about planning for housing, we’re talking about the long term.”

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