Californians, Imagine New Homes That Need No New Water

In February, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a drought emergency in California, citing two successive years of below-average rainfall and dangerously low runoff from the Sierra Nevada snowpack.

Since then, the water-supply crisis has only deepened, and now it coincides with a recession that has severely damaged the state economy. Few sectors of the economy have been as hard hit as the home builders and construction companies.

Enter Assembly Bill 1408, authored by Democratic Assemblyman Paul Krekorian. This unique bill would offer significant dual benefits for improving our water supply and alleviating the housing slump. Imagine new homes that require no additional water supplies but have the same, or better, amenities than the current housing stock. Imagine builders being able to construct these new homes in areas where, without AB 1408, the lack of water would preclude new development.

Now imagine that the building industry wants this bill killed. It is hard to believe but true -- the California Building Industry Association continues to lean on legislators to vote against this bill in the coming days. But why?

Current law requires a water utility to demonstrate that it has enough water to serve a new development before it can be approved. Historically, new development has led to more demand on existing water supplies. If the water supply is not there, the development cannot go forward. AB 1408 turns traditional thinking on its head by establishing tough conservation standards under which "no net water demand" housing can be developed.

CBIA does not want these tough conservation standards enacted into law, which would guarantee that promises of water conservation will be real. (They're just hoping here for a free pass!) It's not enough for a developer to promise to reduce water demand in its new homes -- there must be standards and conditions to guarantee that water savings will be achieved. What could be greener than housing that requires no new water supplies?

AB 1408 embodies a true spirit of innovation that would give the building industry a new option to proceed with development in water-strapped areas.

How would AB 1408 achieve such "no net water demand" housing? This would be accomplished in two ways. First, the bill calls for state-of-the-art water-conservation features that exceed all current standards. Examples are high-efficiency toilets, weather-based irrigation controllers and the use of recycled water. Second, any remaining water demand from the new development could be fully offset by paying for additional conservation measures at other locations.

The bill also prioritizes funding in low-income communities, which have the greatest potential for water savings and the least means to achieve them. This innovative program would be funded by the developer, allowing it to bypass existing legal requirements to identify new water for new development -- a win-win solution.

Finally, AB 1408 is purely optional. It would not impose these requirements upon all home builders against their wills. AB 1408 would simply provide this program as an optional tool that a developer and local water utility could agree to use in regions of the state with the greatest water shortages. AB 1408 would provide a new alternative to facilitate home building in water-short areas, where approvals and permits might be more difficult to secure.

Let me repeat: This new law would be completely optional and only used if both the developer and the local water supplier agreed to take the route of no net water demand.

In fact, the AB 1408 approach has already been successfully "field tested" with a major new development in the San Ramon Valley in the San Francisco Bay Area. Four developers have collaborated closely with the local water utility (East Bay Municipal Utility District) to ensure that all plumbing fixtures and landscaping were selected to sustain a high standard of living, without reducing the water supply for existing customers.

These developers have also funded additional conservation efforts that save water equal to the amount of water the homes will be using. Based on this experience, we know this can be done across California.

If you're wondering why on earth the CBIA would want this bill dead -- even though it only creates an optional process -- you are in good company. But the dirty little secret is that they do not want to be held to guarantees that the promised water savings would be real. They object to legal standards and procedures ensuring that those who purchase these "green" homes would be required to keep the water-conservation promises made by the developer.

How, exactly, does this make sense when we're facing our current drought? How does it make any more sense in the long run, with a shrinking snowpack from climate change and a burgeoning population?

AB 1408 could help jump-start our economy and the housing industry immediately, even if this current multiyear drought in California continues. Yet, CBIA is opposing this measure with a baffling level of gusto. AB 1408 represents a wise approach for our future, paving the way to build homes without adding to the water-supply challenges that California faces now and in its future.

The deadline for all Assembly bills to pass off the Assembly floor is Friday, June 5. You can act by contacting your Assembly member today and telling him or her that voting yes on AB 1408 is the best way to ensure that California has a new way of building homes that relies on conservation, without worsening its water shortages.

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