No Water, No Growth by Mary Ann Dickinson, Alliance for Water Efficiency

The following is a condensed version of an article that was published in the Alliance for Water Efficiency’s Water Currents newsletter and is reprinted with permission:

We’re accustomed to waiting in lines for a football game, to buy movie tickets or perhaps to get a seat in the most coveted professor’s class. But what if we had to wait in line to move? What if we had to be granted access to a city where we found a great new job or the family dream home we always wanted? This idea isn’t so far-fetched; in some places, it’s already an unfortunate reality. In the seaside village of Cambria, California, 666 families and individuals are currently waiting for permission to move into their single family homes. Many have been on the wait list for upwards of 20 years. Why have communities resorted to such extreme measures? The answer: insufficient water supplies to hook up to new homes and facilities. Planners and decision-makers are increasingly challenged with the task of accommodating new water customers which in turn places limits on overall economic growth and deters businesses from investing or expanding operations that can create jobs and bring opportunity to cities.

Although we may not recognize it when we turn on our faucets now, it will become clear how valuable and limited water is as more communities must consider if—and how—they can absorb the thousands and even millions more residents coming their way. In drought-gripped states like California, which anticipates welcoming another 12 million people before 2050, this challenge is already here. But we don’t need to part with the ideals that propel us to seek out better lives and fresh starts in new places. Instead, policies that bridge planning activities and stewardship of water resources can put communities on a path to sustainable growth and allow needed economic development. In the Alliance for Water Efficiency’s (AWE) new paper, Water Offset Policies for Water-Neutral Community Growth, we take a look at where policies have been implemented to mitigate this specific tension between water and growth--and explore what it will take to make this type of policy the norm. While only 13 communities have implemented such policies to-date, the review demonstrates that there is great opportunity to make this a standard planning practice. So why haven’t more communities pursued more water and growth programs? Explanations include complexity—administrative and technical, as well as the fact that land use planning and water resources planning entities within a service area must work hand in hand--along with developers, planning and zoning commissions, and other stakeholder groups. In many places, these entities may be completely disconnected and have diverse or even conflicting objectives.

That’s why AWE has partnered with the Environmental Law Institute and River Network to launch Net Blue--an initiative that aims to provide a practical path to sustainable community growth. The project will produce a toolbox of ordinance components, developed in concert with water resources, land use planning and legal experts, which cities can use to create and tailor a water demand offset approach that meets their needs. The project will also preview the ordinances in communities in different regions throughout North America to develop the components and to ensure that it is adaptable in communities with diverse political climates, legal frameworks, and environmental challenges. This project proves that cities can find a better balance between finite water resources and the boundless desire to grow--and create a story that doesn’t end with a waiting list or turning away business. We need to apply new thinking to traditional land use and planning approaches, and devise new strategies that prioritize building in ways that avoids undue strain on limited resources. This effort must also entail an inclusive discussion that creates links between diverse groups around a common goal of thriving communities. We hope our Net Blue Project will further that discussion and make sustainable growth an easier, more practical path.