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California Urban Areas Must Link Land Use & Water Supply

A friend of mine is just in the final stages of building a new home. It’s a beautiful site – full of oaks and other native species. Just blocks from town center but just remote enough that the garden has to be planted with species wild deer won’t eat.

As we were unpacking and arranging her new kitchen – she pointed out the 10 additional trees the City of Los Gatos had required her to plant as a condition of occupying the home. Anyone who didn’t know the story behind the 10 trees would never see the seedlings – swallowed up amidst the mature forest.

Her argument – there’s a drought – fell on deaf ears at the city planning department. It didn’t matter that water to irrigate the new trees might not be available – trees were part of the conditions for permitting four or five years ago – so, the “rules are the rules”.

City Planning That Matters

Such mindless genuflecting to the rules is a perfect example of what happens when bureaucrats incapable of asking themselves what if are given free rein to implement legislation that had a far different intent.

What if temporary water conservation measures prevent the homeowner from watering the $10,000 worth of new trees during their first summer on the site?

What if they die, will the city require they be replaced next year? Will there be sufficient water next year?

What if planners had offered an interim alternative that met the homeowner’s, the neighborhood and the city’s needs?

Drought Tolerant not Required

This homeowner planned her landscaping to take advantage of native species that are known to be drought tolerant – even though that’s not required. Planting is required, drought tolerant not required.

If I ask you whether the city’s requirements makes any ecological or economic sense in the midst of unprecedented drought, your answer would surely be “no”. That’s correct it makes no sense.

If I then asked: Do you think this lopsided planning logic is restricted to this single upscale California community, you might say “yes”. You would be absolutely wrong.

This morning, I spent more than two hours listening to a San Jose mayoral primary debate. San Jose is the 9th or 10th largest city in the nation.

To my surprise, in the midst of historic drought not a single question was asked or answered concerning the city’s role in planning for current and future water conservation. None of the five candidates – who each waxed eloquently about their growth plans for the city – jobs, population, economy, tax base – explained how so much growth could occur against the backdrop of a static to declining supply of fresh water. Believe me, I asked!

Can’t Eat the Lawn

In urban California it’s easier not to consider the reality of finite water resources.  It’s not our fault, it’s those greedy farmers.

At the local and regional level, planning for land use and planning for water storage and distribution is done separately by separate elected boards and councils. Each entity makes assumptions and draws up plans within its own silo of responsibility. There is no mechanism to force the integration of these efforts – no mechanism to respond across the silos in an emergency situation. No collective throat to choke.

And most alarming – there is no imagination. Not one politician suggested, for example, a moratorium on new backyard swimming pools until the water situation is stabilized or a moratorium on expensive capital landscaping for, perhaps, one year.

Not one local politician has offered an explanation to voters about the importance of water for agriculture to the California and national economy as well as national security. It’s a simple argument. Approximately 50% of urban water usage is for the lawn and landscaping. We can’t eat our lawns – all Californians are in this drought together!

Water conservation is everyone’s responsibility and it’s everyone’s opportunity. Each of us can make it a habit to use water more thoughtfully but – as importantly – we must challenge our elected leaders to work across the silos of 20th century government to address our 21st century water challenges holistically – the greater good of the greater many.

We need to elect leaders who consider land use plans within the context of limited water supplies. We need leaders who demand thoughtful, flexible implementation of land use policy by the bureaucracy to match policy to the realities of the moment. Or we need to elect different leaders.

Demanding a larger share of someone else’s water so – well, so 19th century! So economically and socially short-sighted.

If you agree with me, share this blog and your ideas with your elected officials.

Photo Credit: David McNew/Getty Images

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