Thirsty Development

Water Conservation

By now everyone knows about the drought, although some people seem to be in denial about the problem it presents. The governor has asked for a 20% reduction in use, and our City has followed suit and asked residents to reduce water use by 20%. In the meantime, new developments–some of them especially water-intensive–continue to make their way through the approval process. Even as residents try to reduce their consumption, the city’s overall consumption is well on its way to new heights.

Santa Monica gets most of its water from its own wells, purchasing the rest from the Metropolitan Water District. MWD water, which comes from the Colorado River, rain and snow melt, is especially susceptible to the effects of drought. As the water supply from the state diminishes, the cost of that water will rise. To reduce the impact of an unstable state water supply, the City developed a plan to be water self-sufficient within the next six years. Included in this plan is the construction of two new wells, and various other water-conservation measures.

As with our current wells, new wells will draw from a vulnerable underground supply shared, and desired, by others. New conservation measures, while laudable, will not reverse the rising water-consumption trend, because conservation cannot trump an increase in the number of users. With all the projects in the pipeline, including residential developments and hotels, the City will continue to depend on unreliable and increasingly expensive water from the MWD, and increased costs will inevitably be imposed on all water consumers in the city. The more water consumed by the city, the more we will depend on purchased outside water, and the more we’ll pay.

In January last year the city consumed approximately 10 million gallons of water per day. We were asked to conserve a mere 200,000 gals per day, a reduction of two gallons per day per person, or 2%. One year later, in January of 2014, water consumption had jumped to 12 million gallons per day, a 20% increase in one year. And now, after the State declared a severe drought and asked for voluntary conservation efforts, consumption has risen another 2%.

Today we’re faced with mandatory cuts at the risk of significant penalties. Yet we see no serious attempt to put the brakes on excessive development, with several development agreements having just been presented to the Planning Commission and City Council. A twelve-story mixed-use commercial/residential/hotel project proposed downtown will have enormous impact on existing infrastructure, especially water demand. Two other hotels have already been approved, and another very large mixed-use project at the Fred Segal site, as well as eight mixed-use residential/commercial projects in a four-block area along Lincoln Blvd. Twenty-two projects in a twelve-block area of downtown have applied for development agreements. And this does not even include the three condo/hotel projects on Ocean Avenue that many in this community consider ridiculously over-scaled.

City government has not asked us to subsidize new development. but that is the net effect of continuing to encourage and process large developments that signficantly increase the city’s water consumption–especially projects substantially larger than basic zoning allows. Let’s not mince words: it’s irresponsible to consider such developments given the current water crisis. This past year has been the driest in recorded California history. There was a similarly dry year over 100 years ago, but our population has grown 40 times since then–and with indoor plumbing and hygiene changes, consumption is probably closer to 100 times what it was then.

The City’s solutions to water shortages depend on access to resources over which the city has little control. This includes the new wells, which access regional aquifers vulnerable to depletion since they are available to others, among other reasons. With any shortfalls provided by the wells, the City will purchase water from MWD, whose sources are also being depleted. The reliance on uncontrollable resources means that a reliable plan cannot, in fact, be prepared, and the risk of draconian cuts and ballooning costs increases with each new project being approved.

The City is already doing some things right, on the water conservation side. But more must be done. The city must commit to the widespread use of greywater systems, and plan for a fully greywater-enabled city within the next twenty years. The city should require the installation of water meters in all dwellings and apartments (accompanied by lenient financing terms), efficient metering and control systems for hotels, a more aggressive water-use policing effort throughout the City, and a stronger rainharvesting effort.

It is clear that with a severe drought upon us, we should all do our part to conserve water. As part of SM a.r.t, we believe that our City’s own policies on infrastructure and development should be held to the same standard of reduced demand, including placing a hold on large projects unable to provide their own water supplies. The State requires new developments with more than 500 units to supply their own water, exclusive of the city’s supply. Such projects must go outside the city to obtain their own water. There are at least 1500 new units in the pipeline, but the City does not require those projects to bring their own water because none reaches the 500-unit threshold (the defunct Hines project ‘oddly’ limiting itself to 498 units). Since many of these projects rely on development agreements, the City should require evidence of a new water source as part of the negotiated public benefits with each agreement.

Residents and local businesses already carry the weight of conservation in the city, even as daytime population swells to over 300,000 transient visitors who consume water at hotels, restaurants, beach showers, and public restrooms. There is no reason to burden residents and local businesses with the increased infrastructure costs that large developments bring, in this water-constrained environment.

For many years, comedians and radio pundits referred to Santa Monica as “the home of the homeless.” Let’s make sure our city will never be known as “the home of the waterless.”

Dan Jansenson, Architect and Bob Taylor, A.I.A. for SMa.r.t.

Advertisements