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California Builders Prepare For Future Water Needs As Population Grows


The drought in California means the state is struggling to get enough water to all of the people who live there. It's also trying to ensure water for the millions more expected to live there in the future. In a moment, how Santa Fe has managed to decrease water consumption while its population has grown. But first, Molly Peterson of member station KPCC has this report from L.A.


MOLLY PETERSON, BYLINE: Crews are putting finishing touches on skinny new homes clustered up a steep hillside in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Echo Park. They work for Planet Home Living. The company's cofounder, Dave French, knows his way around saving water in drought times.


DAVE FRENCH: So I did put a brick in our toilet when my wife and I lived in the San Diego-Encinitas area in the early '90s, and we had a big drought then. And yes we did, we put a brick in the tank (laughter).

PETERSON: That brick saved him about half a gallon a flush, but French says in these three-bedroom townhouses that sort of jury-rigging won't be necessary.

FRENCH: These are all low-flow faucets.


PETERSON: Low-flow toilets and shower heads come standard under California's two-year-old green building code, the toughest in the nation. Houses built to code now are about twice as water efficient as those built before 1980. And state regulators just tightened rules on faucets.

FRENCH: You have significantly less water being used in a household today than you would have, you know, 15, 20, 30 years ago. Appliances - clothes washers, dishwasher - everything's much, much more efficient now than it was back then.

PETERSON: Better plumbing in new homes and retrofits for old ones make the difference. Los Angeles is using the same amount of water it did 30 years ago, but now it has 1 million more people. L.A. has a goal to add 100,000 housing units within the next six years while lowering the daily per person water-use rate.

The city's chief sustainability officer, Matt Petersen, says that goal could mean pushing plumbing efficiency beyond current state minimums, in part by requiring tankless hot water heaters to be nearer to showers.

MATT PETERSEN: People will stand there waiting for the water to get hot. And it takes a few minutes for that, and then they get in the shower. That's a lot of water wasted that we can make sure doesn't happen in the first place.

PETERSON: Policies about supplies for large new housing projects remain muddled. Large-scale developers do need to prove they've got a viable water supply to support new subdivisions. But valid proof may be just a contract promising future deliveries from a distant agency. Sacramento water rights lawyer Kevin O'Brien says sometimes that's shorthanded to paper water.

KEVIN O'BRIEN: It's a bit of a pejorative phrase, but it does illustrate the fact that just because you have a contract that says your supply is X, doesn't necessarily mean that that's what you're going to physically receive through your contract process.

PETERSON: No one state agency keeps track of the water requested for new developments, but the public's paying more attention.


JEFF MORGAN: Alright. Now, this is where the development would be - there, there, there, there and there.

PETERSON: In the arid Coachella Valley, a hundred miles east of Los Angeles, one skeptic of large new housing projects is Jeff Morgan, a Sierra Club activist. On a map, Morgan points out where a project called La Entrada soon will break ground - 8,000 new homes. Morgan says he knows there's a housing shortage.

MORGAN: We have to be realistic. People live here. And they have to have services, and they have to make a living.

PETERSON: Morgan came to the Palm Springs area in the '70s, when there was one-tenth the number of people there are now. He worries the rate of new housing in this valley can't be sustained by water in the ground beneath it or by supplies piped in from far away.

MORGAN: If you add more people, you're going to use more water.

PETERSON: The region's population is expected to double within 25 years. For NPR News, I'm Molly Peterson in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Molly Peterson