Picture of Jeremy Madsen

Jeremy Madsen

Being Smarter About Land Use Can Help Fight Against Drought

Special to the Mercury News

El Niño is coming. Get your umbrella and maybe some sandbags — this winter promises to be a wet one. But even if the next few months are rain-filled, it will take more than one watery winter to recover from California’s four-year drought. And with a changing climate, this level of water scarcity could be a new normal.

By now, you would have to have been living under a very dry rock to not know the things we should all be doing to save water — let your lawn go brown, wash your car less, take fewer and shorter showers, flush less if you dare. But there is one thing that cities and counties across the Bay Area and around California can do to save water that has not gotten a lot of attention–be smart about land use. For three reasons, smart decisions about how communities grow and develop are also smart water decisions.

First, protecting the open spaces that surround our cities and towns from sprawl development also protects our water supply. In the nine-county Bay Area, about 30 percent of our water comes from local rivers, streams, and groundwater aquifers. Roughly 1.2 million acres, more than a quarter of all the land in our region, serve as watersheds and groundwater infiltration zones that replenish these local water sources. Local sources will likely be more critical to our water supply in the future than they are today. Paving over water resource lands puts our water supply in jeopardy.

Second, “smart growth development” in which existing cities and towns are invigorated with a mix of housing types — like apartments, condos and townhomes — together with shops, restaurants, work places, and parks, is water-wise development. Such development tends to have less water-consuming landscaping. When comparing current Bay Area development trends to a more smart-growth scenario for future development, a Greenbelt Alliance study with Calthorpe Associates found that the smart growth scenario would reduce water consumption by 9 percent. Conveniently, smart growth development is not only water-wise but consistent with the demand of many Bay Area residents — from tech-worker millennials to retiring baby boomers — who want to live in a vibrant, dynamic downtown or neighborhood center rather than a tract home on the urban edge.

Third, smart growth development is water-wise because it helps address the “leaky pipe syndrome.” A 2014 report from the American Water Works Association found that California leaks about 228 billion gallons of water a year from municipal water infrastructure — the pipes that move water to where we live and work. This is 25 percent of the total water in the system or, to put it another way, the annual water demand for the entire city of Los Angeles. Smart growth that directs development to existing cities and towns versus out into open spaces or agricultural lands creates fewer opportunities for leaks simply because fewer miles of pipes will be necessary to serve development. Additionally, by redeveloping in cities and towns, old pipes can be replaced to reduce or prevent leakage, meaning water gets where it is supposed to go.

We are surely going to be talking about water and how to get by with less of it, for years to come. By implementing smart growth development in our cities and counties, Bay Area leaders will also be making water-wise decisions. As our region grows from 7 million to 9 million people over the next generation, doing right by the water and land-use connection in not merely a good idea, it’s essential.


This article was written for and originally published by the San Jose Mercury News.

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