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Can Claremont manage continued growth during a drought?

by Steven Felschundneff | steven@claremont-courier.com

As mandatory water restrictions officially hit Claremont ratepayers this week, many are wondering what comes next as the drought worsens while the state of California  continues to pressure cities to build more homes.

On May 24, the Claremont City Council declared a level two water supply shortage and urgency ordinance mandating that each household in the city limit outdoor irrigation to one day per week and reduce overall water consumption by 20%.

Those restrictions began Wednesday and will be revisited in September, at which point more severe measures may be enforced if demand remains too high.

Many residents have expressed resentment over being asked to sacrifice by cutting back outdoor watering, even as the city pushes forward with large housing developments, further depleting precious water resources by adding hundreds of new units which must connect to the existing infrastructure.

Those concerns came forward during public comment at the May 24 council meeting, when one longtime Claremont resident said it was irritating that the city was putting up all this “incredible high density housing” when there was not enough water to maintain established landscaping.

At the forefront of this debate is Intracorp’s Docente development, 95 single family homes, townhomes and duplexes located in an area euphemistically referred to as Colby Circle. An additional 30 condominiums are under construction between Docente and the parking structure adjacent to Trader Joe’s.

Because these 125 new homes range in size, it’s difficult to calculate exactly how much water each will use, but it’s fair to assume as a baseline that each will require the human health and safety standard of 55 gallons per capita per day. Plus common areas at the development will be landscaped.

Even as the drought intensifies, another competing crisis cannot be ignored: there are simply not enough residential units to keep up with demand in Los Angeles County and Southern California. This shortage has pushed prices for existing homes to record highs, which contributes to homelessness in the region.

“We are in a housing crisis. We do need to start thinking about how to live better in California. And so, despite the fact that we are in a historic dry period and we are in a 20-year drought, that does not take away from the fact that we still have other situations that we also have to address at the same time. I feel like the opportunity in front of us is to become better able to articulate difficult situations without pitting one thing against the other because they are all critically important,” Councilmember Jennifer Stark said during the May 24 meeting.

According to a 2021 report from the California Housing Partnership, an estimated 120,000 affordable homes need to be built each year through 2030 to meet housing needs, particularly for low-income people.

“None of the 1.09 million extremely low-income renter households in California — those earning 30% of [area median income] or less — can afford average asking rents in any California county,” according to the report. “And for very low income households, those earning 50% of AMI, just three counties offer asking rents they can afford.”

As reported in last week’s COURIER, funding and building subsidized housing remains only part of the solution as the region still needs hundreds of thousands of market-rate units to keep up with demand. A host of recent laws from Sacramento have streamlined the approval process for new developments and made it possible for a developer to increase density if a certain percentage of units is earmarked for affordable housing.

The answer to theses seemingly conflicting interests may come in how provider agencies balance current water emergencies with the anticipated ability to meet future demand, and a gamble that a 60-year trend of ever increasing conservation will continue.

The Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday that Angelenos use 44% less water per person annually than they did four decades ago, and there is plenty of room for further reductions.

A big driver in that realized conservation is a simple fact: the kind of housing being built today, such as the zero lot line townhomes along Base Line Road, are far more water efficient than the vast majority of Claremont’s housing stock of sprawling single family homes with large yards. Add to that voluntary conservation efforts, like the ongoing push to replace lawns with drought tolerant landscaping, including the current turf removal rebate program from the Metropolitan Water District.

Construction of new developments includes water-conserving amenities like efficient appliances as well as low flow faucets and toilets. Future developments could feature water recycling and grey water systems to stretch resources further.

A study from the San Francisco Planning and Urban Renewal Association, known as SPUR, along with the Pacific Institute, found the San Francisco Bay Area could add 6.8 million people and 2.2 million homes over the next 50 years without taxing water infrastructure through “modest improvements in water use efficiency and by locating new growth in areas that are already developed, known as infill locations.”

About 80% of the state’s water supply goes toward agriculture, with the remaining 20% doing all the rest of the work. Which could mean that conservation in places like Claremont is just one part of the eventual solution.

That message came through loud and clear from Matt Litchfield, general manager and chief engineer at Three Valleys Municipal Water District. He told the council about Solve the Water Crisis Coalition, a group of water managers who are lobbying the state legislature and the governor to make badly needed improvements to the roughly 60-year-old State Water Project.

“The way it was designed and the way it’s been functioning in the past, it’s not able to keep up with the type of hydrology that we are seeing now,” Litchfield said. “We had all of those storms at the end of December and the first week of January and then, poof, it just dried up. But during those storms, and the [Department of Water Resources] admits this, if we had a conveyance project in the Delta to capture that storm water that gets flushed under the Golden Gate Bridge, 236,000 acre feet could have been moved south of the Delta. That is a game changer for us.”

Among the projects that could be included in that upgrade are off stream reservoirs, constructed solely for the purpose of capturing storm water runoff, as opposed to the many “on stream” reservoirs that are intended for flood control and protecting public safety.

“That is the problem that we are trying to convey to Sacramento — we are all doing our part down here right? The solution the state has always said is: ‘You can conserve your way out of this.’ No you can’t. It’s part of the puzzle, no doubt. It’s part of the solution, [with] local projects and water conservation. But we’ve got to zoom out and look at the entire state. [Department of Water Resources], your system is broke and needs to be fixed with some major investments and it needs to be treated truly as a crisis,” Litchfield said.

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