Grow with the flow

This year, the California Legislature again failed to act on a bill requiring certification of adequate water supplies before approval of large, new residential developments. Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl’s bill, AB 1219, did not make it out of the Senate Agriculture and Water Committee.

Currently, the specific requirement is just informational—that local governments obtain information from local water agencies before approving any development of 500 or more units and that they include this information in the project’s environmental impact report. But now the courts are starting to find that major developments should be required to have an adequate water supply.

Water for new development is a complex issue. The development community wishes to avoid controls and argues against additional hurdles in the path of residential construction, citing the current housing shortage in California. But development without assured water is a recipe for future problems, and it is often a mechanism for achieving unnecessarily sprawling development.

We see two issues here, the first being where water for cities, suburbs and other built areas goes. A key component of the Smart Growth debate is that infrastructure expenditures should focus on existing developed areas, not on promoting sprawl into rural areas. The focus of this discussion is on transportation and sewer funding. But society should apply the same approach to water supply.

There should be a tight coupling between provision of additional water for development and avoidance of sprawl. This will be yet another way to encourage infill development, redevelopment and the best use of our existing cities and suburbs.

The second issue, which gets far more attention, is the total water supply. The water wars continue in California, as agriculture, cities and the environment compete for scarce water supplies.

A recent court ruling provides a new twist to this debate. In September of this year, the California 3rd District Court of Appeals essentially agreed that the State Water Project promises more than it can deliver, especially in Southern California. The court struck down part of the 1995 “Monterey Amendments.” These closed-door agreements on state water policy removed a requirement, established in 1960, that the state reduce water entitlements if it could not provide the 4.23 million acre-feet annually originally envisioned for the State Water Project. The 1995 amendments also put agriculture and cities on an equal footing in drought years, replacing the cities’ priority established in 1960. This ruling will intensify the ongoing debate on how to provide water for California.