June 14, 2015
By Bradley Fikes

Turning off California’s growing economy is politically and legally infeasible


Aerial views of the Civita master planned community on the north side of Mission Valley. Water conservation has been a priority at the Civita project since construction began. The project is the largest planned community to be built in Mission Valley. — John Gibbins

California is in a severe drought, the outlook is uncertain, yet residential development continues unabated. If water is so scarce and people must sacrifice, why are more water hookups still allowed?

It’s a question asked in every drought, as Californians are told to sacrifice to conserve water, while new demand is added to an inadequate supply. And that question gets the same set of answers.

Here’s the overview:

California’s growing economy must accommodate that growth. Turning off that growth is politically and legally infeasible. Moreover, state law governs how local water agencies handle connection requests. They must consider the long-term water supply outlook, looking beyond temporary shortages. And if the drought gets worse, agencies are prepared to stop granting new permits.

In other words, developers aren’t hooking up to scarce water supplies at will. Like everything else in real estate development, water supplies are planned for.

Some environmentalists challenge that view, saying California should act more aggressively to curb growth when water runs short. That California seems to be lapsing into shortages more frequently indicates the planning is out of balance with reality, say the environmentalists.

Last October, the State Water Resources Control Board ordered 22 water districts, nearly all small providers in Northern California, to impose a moratorium on new water connections.

For a more complete picture and a real-life example of how residential development and water supply is handled, The San Diego Union-Tribune went to representatives of the state, regional water agencies, environmentalists and developers to get their perspectives.

The prevailing view among water agencies is that exceptional circumstances are required to deny or delay new water connections.That point was made during a May 21 board meeting of the Santa Fe Irrigation District by Paula de Sousa, the district’s general counsel. The board is wrestling with a 36 percent cut in water use ordered by the State Water Resources Control Board.

The board would have to declare that “the ordinary demands and requirements of water consumers cannot be satisfied without depleting the water supply of the distributor to the extent that there would be insufficient water for human consumption, sanitation, and fire protection,” de Sousa said, citing Section 356 of the California Water Code.

Such a dire circumstance doesn’t exist, she told the board.

That reading of the law is too narrow, and districts have more leeway than that interpretation suggests, said Marco Gonzalez, a prominent environmental attorney and co-founder of Encinitas-based Coast Law Group. He read from the text of a case, Swanson v. Marin Municipal Water District.

“A water shortage emergency condition within the meaning of section 350 includes both an immediate emergency, in which a district is presently unable to meet its customers’ needs, and a threatened water shortage, in which a district determines that its supply cannot meet an increased future demand,” Gonzales read from the decision.

“Yes, it’s still a high bar,” Gonzalez said. But Gov. Jerry Brown’s declaration of mandatory cutbacks because of a drought emergency is evidence to support halting hookups, he said.

“There’s plenty of evidence the district could rely on, including global warming trends and whatnot, to say this is enough for a short-term moratorium,” Gonzalez said. “But they’re simply politically unwilling.”


The Santa Fe Irrigation District and other major retail water suppliers in San Diego County have contingency plans for a hookup moratorium. This comes under a model drought response ordinance devised by the San Diego County Water Authority, which imports water and sells it to retail agencies. The agencies voluntarily used this ordinance to craft coordinated action.

The ordinance specifies four level of conservation. The Water Authority’s member agencies are now at level 2, a drought alert, said Ken Weinberg, the Water Authority’s interim director of water resources. This calls for mandatory conservation of up to 20 percent.

At level 3, drought critical, mandatory conservation of up to 40 percent is called for. At that point, most new requests for water hookups will be denied. Exceptions are made for projects with valid building permits, where the public health, safety or welfare is threatened, or the developer demonstrates that the new water demands will be offset.

In the worst case, agencies would move to a level 4 drought emergency, imposing mandatory cuts of more than 40 percent. This adds a prohibition against most irrigation not intended for commercial agriculture or nurseries.

The plan envisioned agencies sharing the shortage under the aegis of the Water Authority. This would allow the agencies to make an orderly move from one level to another at the same time, allowing for maximum coordination, Weinberg said.

However, the statewide conservation mandates have made such a unified response impossible, he said. That’s because each agency is given its own target to meet.

At the low end are agencies such as California-American Water Co., which supplies Coronado and Imperial Beach, with an 8 percent reduction mandate. At the top are agencies such as the Santa Fe Irrigation District, which must cut back 36 percent. That is extremely difficult to meet, hence the board’s discussion of whether new hookups can be suspended.

But the state reduction mandates are far greater than the actual shortage in the county would normally justify, Weinberg said. The Water Authority says it can meet 99 percent of its agencies’ needs over the next year. In other words, the level of conservation has been decoupled from the actual need. And new sources of supply, such as that soon to come from the Carlsbad desalination plant, don’t factor.

That’s not to say this water will be wasted: the Water Authority will store the water it would have otherwise delivered.

So the individual water agencies must decide on their own such questions as whether or when to stop denying new connections, an entirely unforeseen circumstance when the model ordinance was drafted..

Civita: Master-planned conservation

The city of San Diego must meet a moderate goal of a 16 percent water use reduction. That goal can be met by cutting lawn watering to two days a week and other measures, said Brent Eidson, a spokesman for the city’s public utilities department.

Meanwhile, new construction goes on.

Civita, one of the city of San Diego’s largest new master-planned communities, has been building throughout the drought. When completed, it will contain a maximum of 4,780 dwelling units, consisting of single-family homes, townhomes and apartments; along with shops, restaurants, parks, and possibly an elementary school.

Located in Mission Valley on the north side of Friars Road on a former quarry site, Civita is including water-efficient appliances and fixtures in homes to reduce consumption. Homes have digital readouts of water use on a small display mounted next to the thermostat, so residents can continually monitor their water use.

Outside, most of the landscape consists of low-water-use plants, although there is turf in the parks. The project will include a water recycling plant to supply non-potable irrigation water. Its capacity will be from 200,000 gallons a day up to 400,000 gallons a day.

“Our goal is to offset about 250,000 gallons of water a day,” said Marco Sessa, a senior vice president of Sudberry Properties, which is in overall charge of Civita. That’s enough for all irrigation needs, with the exception of July, when it’s hottest.

The water recycling plant was a condition for approval, Eidson said. California law imposes water efficiency requirements on developments of 500 or more dwelling units. These are enforced under what are called Urban Water Management Plans, drawn up by urban water providers, including the city of San Diego.

Among other things, the state requires these urban water providers to reduce per-capita urban water consumption by 20 percent by the year 2020, and assess the reliability of its water supply over 20 years. These are mandated in the Water Conservation Bill of 2009, or SBX7-7.

Civita’s original application was turned down because it didn’t meet the requirements. Civita had actually received initial informal approval, Sessa said.

“As we began studying things, we were told that we were OK under the plan,” Sessa said. “As we went farther down the road and had a lot of work and effort, based on what we had been told, it was determined there had been an error. We needed to come up with a way to offset the equivalent of about 1,500 homes.”

New precedent

While the city does supply “purple pipe” recycled water, the pipes don’t reach Civita. So Sudberry agreed to build its own recycling plant. It’s not required just yet, but will be around the 3,000-unit mark.

The company has decided on the recycling technology and found potential locations, Sessa said.

The recycling process starts with water skimmed off the top of the sewer pipe leaving the community. The water will be processed with microbes that break down organic matter, exposed to sterilizing ultraviolet light, and sent through a reverse-osmosis filter like those used in desalination plants, Sessa said.

Civita could still tap into the city’s recycled water supply, if the pipes are extended into the area before it reaches that milestone, Sessa said.

“We already have the infrastructure,” Sessa said. “If that doesn’t happen, then we would put the plant into place.”

A private developer operating a water recycling plant is a new concept for water regulators, Sessa said, and it required approval from the Regional Water Quality Control Board. That came through earlier this year.

“The regional board has realized we need to start getting out of our comfort zone, and there’s got to be a way for private guys to operate those facilities,” Sessa said.

All told, Civita’s per-capita water use will surpass water efficiency standards by about 30 percent, Sessa said.

© Copyright 2015 The San Diego Union-Tribune. All rights reserved.