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Can Silicon Valley Growth Be Water Smart?

Silicon Valley’s population has skyrocketed in the last several decades and, to keep up, development is booming. Some residents are worried this will put a strain on water resources, which are especially tight during California’s drought. But experts say that smart development can also be water wise.

Written by Tara Lohan Published on Read time Approx. 9 minutes
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MOUNTAIN VIEW, California – The 12-acre (4.85-hectare) lot at the intersection of Delaware Drive and Concar Street in San Mateo has been reduced to dirt, with the rubble of its previous incarnation (a Kmart) hauled away. Behind the chain link fence cloaked in green cloth are cement mixers and bulldozers preparing for what comes next.

Near the confluence of Highways 92 and 101, and next door to the Hayward Park Caltrain station, this is prime real estate in coveted Silicon Valley where development is trying to keep pace with expanding tech companies and increasing population. Soon this will be Station Park Green, a mixed-use development with 599 residential units, 10,000 square feet (930 square meters) of office space and 60,000 square feet of retail space.

It’s just one of many developments planned throughout the region. In many places, Silicon Valley is bursting at the seams, with growth rates between two and four times higher than the state as a whole in the last two years. The fastest-growing cities are Milpitas, Half Moon Bay, San Bruno and Brisbane.

In May 2015, Silicon Valley’s population hit 3 million for the first time. Compared to neighboring San Francisco, Silicon Valley’s population has skyrocketed. Between 1950 and 2015, population grew 10 percent in San Francisco. In Silicon Valley, it grew 470 percent.

Rachel Massara, a senior research associate for the Silicon Valley Institute for Regional Studies, said that Silicon Valley has been adding almost 90 people a day. Between 2015 and 2025, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties are expected to add another 217,539 people – a growth rate of 8.2 percent.

For some, it’s too much. There are complaints of traffic, long lines and high rents. Some cities, like Palo Alto, are trying to set development limits in certain areas.

California’s more than four-year (so far) drought has added another concern: Will there be enough water now and in future decades to support this growth? It turns out, the answer may have more to do with not how much growth, but what kind.

Planning for Water

In the last year Santa Clara County residents have stepped up and exceeded conservation mandates, cutting water use by 27 percent. Some tore out their lawns, replacing the thirsty turf with drought-tolerant plants, others let the green go brown. For the most part, there was a shared sense of purpose in the face of adversity.

But that only extends so far.

Jerry De La Piedra, a water quality and conservation manager at Santa Clara Valley Water District, the wholesale water provider for Santa Clara County, has heard rumblings.

“We hear people saying, ‘We are in the middle of a drought, there is a water shortage, why is growth still being allowed to happen?’” said De La Piedra.

For some it can be hard to reconcile the juxtaposition of brown lawns against a backdrop of new subdivisions.

To that end, De La Piedra’s agency has been trying to work more closely with the planning departments of area cities to set the bar higher on building standards that can save water. While there are national and state standards for efficiency and conservation, De La Piedra says they hope to up the ante.

“Locally we are working with land-use agencies in Santa Clara County to develop a model ordinance that goes further than California standards,” he said. “Land-use agencies realize they need to make it as efficient as possible and we are working with them in the next three or four months. We’re looking at gray water, rainwater capture, onsite reuse and hot water recirculation pumps.”

California now has among the toughest efficiency standards in the country for plumbing and appliances, which means new houses use way less water than most older homes. That is part of the reason that total water use in urban areas has remained relatively constant in the last 20 years even as cities have increased in population – we continue to get more efficient.

Randy Tsuda is the director of community development for the city of Mountain View, where he says there is currently significant growth, but water is not a concern. “As we have more and more stringent building standards and restrictions on water usage, Mountain View’s water usage has been falling for the last 15 years,” he said. “We’re using less water now, even after growth, than we were 15 years ago.”

Homes now use low-flow fixtures and the city has implemented restrictions on watering landscapes and developed a water recycling program. And he says, attitudes are changing. “We are far below our water allocation,” said Tsuda. “It’s a combo of a number of things. The building codes and recycled water and the general consciousness about the need to be water efficient is all contributing to where we are today, which is using less water.”

Some of these benefits are a ripple effect from the 2009 Water Conservation Act to reduce per capita water use in cities 20 percent by 2020 and last year’s water conservation mandate from Gov. Jerry Brown that sought to cut water use statewide by 25 percent.

“The targets had the effect of curtailing inefficient and discretionary water uses, like lawns, preserving our drought-limited resources for essential needs for all,” said Laura Tam, the sustainable development policy director of SPUR, an urban planning and research organization. “State leadership to advance conservation and water reuse takes some of the local politics out of it. That allows city leaders and water suppliers to work together toward a common goal.”

And on that front, there is still more than can be done. It’s not just about rules from the state or local level – agencies and officials working on land and water issues need better collaboration.

“I think it’s less the water utilities’ role to become involved in land-use decisions, and more the job of planners, elected and other community leaders and project sponsors to ask questions about the impact of land-use decisions on water supply, demand and reuse,” she said. “Generally, those involved in land-use planning and regulation should think and act more progressively about all water as a valuable, limited resource. Water supply availability can be directly addressed in development agreements, specific plans, general plans, precise plans and more.”

A 2013 report from SPUR called “Future-Proof Water” explains that two state laws (SB 610 and SB 221) require that all developments have an assurance from a water agency that there is enough water to meet future demand for the building project.

“But the responsibility for minimizing future water demand through better land-use planning and compact development lies with planning agencies and regional growth management agencies,” the report states. “These agencies and elected officials, who approve new large projects, could do more to consider water issues and to require that new developments meet or exceed efficiency standards.”

Planners and community officials can also ask utilities to study options and help them understand local water resources, and local potential for reuse, stormwater and gray water capture and treatment, says Tam. “They can also remove barriers for – even incentivize – private sector innovation in these areas,” she said.

Growing Smarter

A sunny March afternoon in Mountain View sounds like a percussion of nail guns and hammers as workers climb the wood skeleton of a new luxury apartment complex near downtown, which spans a block and hovers over the neighborhood’s existing single-story homes.

Not all nearby residents may love the neighborhood’s addition. “There is always that concern that is expressed in Mountain View when folks see new development. And in particular now there is just a lot of new development going on,” said Tsuda. “The construction market, the development market, is probably more active than I’ve ever seen it. On the other hand, a lot of it is housing, which is something that many people here know we need and Silicon Valley as a whole needs.”

There is no doubt a housing crunch. A research paper from the Silicon Valley Institute of Regional Studies found that in some Silicon Valley cities, housing prices are increasing 20–30 percent year-over-year and 40 percent of residents are spending more than one-third of their income on housing. “These issues will intensify with population growth,” the report states.

More development could help ease the strain on the housing market, but at what cost to resources like water?

Experts say more growth can be water wise depending on how it’s done.

“Most people right now think of water conservation as don’t water your lawn as much, take shorter showers, etc.” said Jeremy Madsen, CEO of the Greenbelt Alliance, which focuses on smart growth and conservation in the Bay Area. “But a new home built in the right place uses 35 percent less water than a home built in the wrong place. What you build and where has a big implication for our water sustainability and water security.”

The difference between the “right place” and the “wrong place” boils down to infill, density and proximity to transit. “It doesn’t really require a special type of water-friendly development, it’s just simply building the right kind of development in the right place,” said Madsen whose organization endorsed Station Park Green because it included affordable homes, was near a Caltrain station, had two acres of open public space and promoted car-sharing or biking, which is a bonus for the climate.

“With a changing climate, we are in all likelihood in a new reality where water availability is going to be lower than it was in eras past,” said Madsen. Indeed, local water agencies are conscious of the ways in which climate change may complicate long-term water supply scenarios, which is why many are trying to develop more local water sources and increase water recycling to meet future demand even if prolonged droughts or climate change impact water sources.

Smarter, infill growth can help with that, too. “Less landscaping inherently uses less water and then also gives us a chance to improve upon our aging infrastructure within our cities and towns,” said Madsen. “We can spend our money replacing existing water pipes and fixing leaks that are already there instead of extending the infrastructure out into green spaces where you’ve got miles and miles of more pipes to maintain and have a chance to leak.”

From the 1960s until the market crashed in 2009, the predominant building trend across California was sprawl development, said Madsen. New construction cooled during the recession and now that it’s rebounding in Silicon Valley, Madsen says he sees more infill development and less sprawl cutting up open spaces and farmland. Although sprawl hasn’t been eliminated entirely. “You’re seeing in the hills around San Jose and in southern Santa Clara County that developers coming back now with these types of [sprawl] proposals,” said Madsen.

Two recent proposals – one that would have developed 700 acres (285 hectares) in Gilroy and another around 400 acres in Morgan Hill – were both turned back by the Local Agency Formation Commission, which is a countywide agency that oversees boundary changes. “They recognized that both of those ran counter to the agency’s own policies around farmland preservation,” he said.

Living closer to town is better, but so is simply living closer together. SPUR’s research found that if more people chose to live in multiunit buildings instead of single-family homes, it would save water. In 2010 the percentage of multi-family housing built was 44 percent. But if that was upped to 64 percent, it would save 2 percent more water. Maybe that doesn’t sound like much but in the Bay Area that translates to 27 million gallons a day. The SPUR reports calls that savings a “free benefit of urbanization.”

Local officials “need to recognize that permitting smarter, more compact growth will stretch their highest-quality water resources longer into the future,” said Tam. “I think we are probably not doing enough to make extreme water efficiency a condition of new development, or to require efficiency retrofits of existing development, and that is the way the region needs to grow.”

Madsen sees it as an opportunity. “If we do development right, we can save water, we can protect the climate, we address affordable housing, we can make our communities better places,” he said. “These agencies that operate on the water side and local governments that have the land-use authority need to start understanding this connection because we need to do everything we possibly can, especially with a growing population, to conserve as much as we can.”

Water Deeply thanks the Silicon Valley Community Foundation for their support in making this reporting series possible.

Top image: A recently built subdivision in Redwood City on Bair Island was constructed in an area that was previously mostly industrial and commercial. (Tara Lohan)

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