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What is Smart Growth? A Water-Conservation Tool

Water and land use are inextricably linked. If you care about the drought, you’d best start paying attention to your planning commission, city council and board of supervisors. Because local government decisions on land use are where the rubber meets the road on long-term water demand in California.

Written by Jeremy Madsen Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
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Let’s take a moment and look at what drought has done to us Californians.

Drought has made us connoisseurs of brown lawns and succulents. We now see cars covered with a fine layer of dirt as a sign of responsibility. It has made us pause to wonder if the guy wearing just a little too much cologne is really nose-blind, or just doing his part by conserving water and skipping the shower today.

And maybe, just maybe, the drought will make some of us more interested in land use. That’s right, land use — that arena of public policy that determines what gets built in a community and where it gets built. The arena that can, when mentioned as your line of work at a party, drive people to seek out a more interesting conversational companion. Like an accountant.

Sure, land use might not be sexy at first glance, but it’s certainly fascinating when you consider its effect on water.

First, “smart growth development” is water-wise development. Smart growth is a growth pattern in which existing cities and towns are invigorated with a mix of housing types — including apartments, condos and town homes — together with shops, restaurants, workplaces and parks.

A recent report by Energy Innovations and Calthorpe Analytics found that a new California home built in a smart growth neighborhood would use 35 percent less water than one built in a new sprawling suburban tract — in large part because smart growth neighborhoods have less landscaping to water.

Another reason land use and water are inextricably linked is that good decisions about where we build, and where we don’t, have implications for water resources. In the San Francisco Bay Area, where I am from, roughly 1.2 million acres (485,000 hectares) — more than a quarter of the Bay Area’s land — serve as watersheds and groundwater infiltration zones that replenish local water sources. With the future of the Sierra Nevada snowpack compromised by climate change, local water sources like these are critical to our future.

So, if you consider yourself a champion of water conservation, what should you do on the land use front? Unfortunately, it is not as simple as keeping a bucket in the shower to collect water for the landscaping. Water-wise land use requires our elected leaders to make a series of good decisions about land-use plans, policies and development proposals. It requires public dollars to be spent smartly. It requires political will, from both leaders and voters, to make the right choices, sometimes in the face of opposition.

Our state leaders certainly have a role to play in encouraging water-wise land use, and in recent years some positive steps have been taken in Sacramento. For example, state leaders have dedicated 20 percent of the revenue from California’s cap-and-trade program for greenhouse-gas reduction to help create smart-growth communities. This year that program generated $122 million that went to 28 projects around the state. This revenue is expected to grow in years ahead.

But the state has fallen backward, too. In 2011, Gov. Jerry Brown eliminated California’s redevelopment program, which generated roughly $5 billion per year, most of which supported water-friendly, smart land use. The fact that redevelopment funds have not been replaced means there is a huge shortfall in money needed for water-wise land use.

While our state leaders have a role to play in promoting the type of land use that will limit water consumption and protect supplies, the local level is where the real action is. California’s 58 counties and 482 cities and towns are the alpha dogs when it comes to land use decision-making, and they guard this responsibility the way any self-respecting alpha dog guards a prized bone.

So if you care about water-wise land policy, you’d best start paying attention to the agendas of your local planning commission and city council. But prepare to be watching those agendas for the long haul. Making your city’s land use water-wise won’t be as simple as passing one ordinance on any particular Tuesday night. It’s like making a soufflé; the recipe has to be followed, and it takes a while.

Fortunately, there are some cities getting it right. San Mateo, in the Bay Area, is a great case study for following the right recipe to make smart land use happen.

San Mateo, over the last decade, has crafted a number of plans to promote smart-growth development in their downtown and near public transit. It has done things like adjusting rules about how much parking is required in new developments downtown and near transit, so that land can be used to provide homes for people rather than cars. San Mateo residents have also been willing to tax themselves to get what they want. In 2009, city voters put in place a sales tax to support San Mateo’s general fund; this money is available to support water-wise land use.

San Mateo leaders have had the will and the patience to put in place the foundation for smart growth developments like Station Park Green, a recently approved development providing 599 homes near a train station that includes 45,000 square feet (4,200 square meters) of commercial space and a nearly 2-acre (0.8-hectare) park. Remember, each of those 599 new homes will use 35 percent less water than a new suburban tract home.

So if you want to do something about the drought head down to your local city hall the next time a land-use plan, zoning policy or a new housing proposal for a vacant downtown lot is up for debate. Tell your city leaders that smart land use is water-wise land use.

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