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The water conservation conundrum

Posted: July 17, 2008 1:17 a.m.
Updated: September 17, 2008 5:03 a.m.
 
Water conservation is a good thing. It is a “mom and apple pie” issue with which everyone agrees. It is as old as the “waste not, want not” attitude of our grandparents and is just good common sense in all aspects of our lives, whether we are talking about water, electricity, food or gasoline.

But I have heard rumblings of discontent lately from groups as disparate as the Sierra Club, to my conservative neighbors. They want to know just exactly what it is they are conserving “for.”

The question first arose when the county of Los Angeles approved another 1,000 housing units in Canyon Country on the same day that the governor declared a statewide drought. If we are really having problems, my neighbors asked, why is the county approving all those new houses that will need all that additional water?

The reply came from Dan Masnada, general manager of the Castaic Lake Water Agency, who attended the county hearing and spoke to the Board of Supervisors.

He told supervisors that the Santa Clarita Valley has plenty of water for all the new growth through 2030. Not two weeks later, the water agencies were asking Santa Claritans to voluntarily cut back because of the drought.

However, a recent Signal article reported that water use in the Santa Clarita Valley is up 13 percent.
The issue of conserving water so that it will be available to support more growth is coming to the forefront in every community. But our community is handling it much differently than the creative solutions developed elsewhere.

When the question of adequate water for a project came up at a recent planning commission hearing, supervisor Antonovich’s appointee stated that we will all just have to use less water so that the new project could be accommodated.

If this is the solution, then the question is: How are we going to get anyone to conserve? In a valley already overwhelmed by out-of-control growth, terrible traffic and some of the worst air pollution in the nation, how are we going to persuade people that they should get rid of their lawns so that we can build more houses?

And why is the onus all on the existing homeowner, anyway, with no give from the builders? Local developers have not agreed to use only drought-tolerant landscaping in their new developments.

Instead, they want their developments to have green lawns so that they will have a “salable” product. But in our area, that seems to mean that existing residents must give up their landscaping, so the builders can build more houses.

Environmentalists, on the other hand, want to see at least some of the conserved water stay in the streams and rivers to maintain our wild lands and wildlife.

They, too, are asking why we must conserve water if it is merely used to build more urban-sprawl houses and thus increase the demand for water all over the state.

Why are the city and county granting building approvals in flood plains and paving over ground water re-charge areas — both actions that will reduce our local water supply? Why are developers not required to back away from streams, but instead allowed to concrete over those streams?

Why should we conserve so that builders can destroy our streams and thus reduce our water supply, they ask?

Other communities are addressing this issue through their land-use approval process. New approvals are not being granted without the builder, at a minimum, agreeing to water-efficient, drought-tolerant landscaping.

Some communities refuse to grant approvals until that developer “finds” an equal amount of water to supply his development. The water can come from such sources as agreeing to pay for the replacement of inefficient plumbing in older homes in the community to replacing public or private landscaping in an amount sufficient to cover the needs of the new project.

Such a process also serves as a real incentive for the builder to get the water usage as low as possible for his new proposal.

For some communities, the water may also come in the form of increasing “recharge” to local water sources, such as ground water aquifers. The city of Los Angeles’ demonstration program on “drain pipe disconnects” is one example.

This program is rethinking the old concept that we must divert rain water away as fast as possible through drain pipes and storm drains. Instead, it will investigate how that water might be more efficiently used to re-charge the local ground water basin and ensure that water-well production in the area remains sustainable.

As we try to address how we will resolve the issue of reduced water supply from northern California due to climate change, conserving water must be one of the solutions.

But it is high time that our local water agencies hold a public conversation to address the issue of why we are conserving, how we will conserve and who exactly it is that we are conserving for.

Making current residents cut back so that thousands of additional housing units can continue to be approved is not going to go over well with my neighbors or with the environmental community, especially when builders are not doing their fair share.

Lynne Plambeck is a Santa Clarita Valley resident and president of SCOPE, the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment. Her column reflects her own views, not necessarily those of The Signal.

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