Building New Neighborhoods in a Drought
California sustains itself on growth. From the Gold Rush that filled the state with new residents from around the world in the 1800s to the magnetic pull of Silicon Valley today, the state has always depended on more bodies with money to spend to keep its economy at the front of the pack.
That doesn’t work so well when drought strikes. The one thing all those bodies need is water. When there’s less of it to go around, the economic strategy of “growth first” starts to look foolish.
Yet the hunger for the next boom continues. Many California cities and counties are still growing in the old way: by approving more sprawl development. That means building new homes at the fringes of existing cities, rather than within existing boundaries. As they have for decades, those homes will come with relatively large yards that demand lots of water. Their residents will have long commutes to work, which will aggravate air quality problems and climate change.
CityLab, a project of the Atlantic magazine, does an excellent take-down of this problem in the last installment of its series on the San Joaquin Valley, the bulls-eye for California’s water, growth and smog problems. (Set yourself down for a good 20 minutes if you click through to the story; it is complicated and nuanced, like many of California’s thorniest problems.)
Many California communities are forging ahead with massive new housing developments despite the drought. But the inherent conflicts of this growth pattern may be most acute in the San Joaquin Valley, which is already grappling with some of the worst water shortages and some of the worst air pollution in America.
Fresno County has approved a giant new subdivision dubbed – appropriately – Millerton New Town. It will include 4,500 new homes and will eventually be home to as many as 12,000 people. It’s likely they all will become automobile commuters. The new community will be served by water from Millerton Lake, which has shrunk significantly in the drought. It will likely shrink again in future droughts, thanks in part to climate change brought about, in part, by all those automobile commuters.
It’s a vicious cycle that California can’t seem to break.
Why? The problem is politics. Fresno County Supervisor Henry Perea said so himself in a rather remarkable quote collected by reporter Laura Bliss.
“It’s age-old politics,” Perea said. “Politicians react to one constituency more and less to another. You see the inequities of our decision-making every day.”
The constituency they are reacting to in this case comprises wealthy and influential developers who want to make more money selling more new homes.
The one they aren’t reacting to, Bliss reveals, is people who already live in Fresno County towns such as Lanare. The town of only about 125 homes has room to grow, it’s already connected to important infrastructure (like roads), and it desperately needs additional residents whose incomes could bring more services and amenities.
Yet nobody is putting the kind of energy into Lanare that Millerton New Town is getting. Lanare, for example, relies on wells for its drinking water, but the water is tainted with arsenic. There are plans to build a new water system, with grants from the state, but there may not be enough people in Lanare to support the operating costs once the new system is finished.
“When you’re investing in other places, there’s not a problem,” Lanare resident Isabel Solorio tells CityLab. “But when we ask, it is drama.”
Renters May Strain Emergency Water Program
Emergency water supplies will at last be available to renters in hard-hit Tulare County – and not just homeowners – after the county board of supervisors last week approved an expansion of a program that installs water tanks at homes where wells have gone dry.
That’s the good news.
The bad news: The demand from suffering renters is already so large that it could overtax the program, which is straining to acquire enough water for the 441 homeowners already signed up for the program.
County officials told the Visalia Times-Delta newspaper that they know of 400 rental homes in need of emergency water.
“If we run out of water and can’t serve [the clients] we have, have we created a detrimental alliance?” asked Tulare County emergency services manager Andrew Lockman.
Nonprofit groups install the 2,500- to 3,000-gallon tanks at stricken homes and are reimbursed by the state for their costs. The county buys water from local water agencies to keep the tanks full, and the state reimburses the county 75 percent of that cost. For its homeowner recipients, the county is already buying 2.8 million gallons of water a month.
But cost isn’t the problem. Water scarcity is. The county is buying water for the program from four agencies: California Water Services Company, the city of Porterville, the Porterville Developmental Center and the Orosi Public Utilities District. These agencies already risk running out, so the additional demand posed by 400 rental homes is worrisome, officials say.
The alternative is to “red tag” homes without water and force the residents to move elsewhere. But that raises another problem: Tulare doesn’t have sufficient rental housing to serve the displaced tenants.
“And in many cases, they would lose all they have invested in their homes and communities over the years,” Andra Garcia, a homeowner in East Porterville, told the board of supervisors in Spanish. She said she was speaking on behalf of her neighbors, who are renters.
Top image: This April 3, 2015, aerial photo shows golf course communities bordering the desert in Cathedral City, California. It’s likely the open desert in the foreground will eventually be developed also, as many California communities are continuing to approve large new housing subdivisions despite water scarcity caused by the drought.