Article Special Series Gary A. Patton

Water and Growth in California

Gary A. Patton is the executive director of the Planning and Conservation League, a statewide organization that has been working on land use and environmental issues in the California Legislature for more than 40 years. From 1975-95 Patton served as a member of the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors. He is the author of that county’s successful growth management program. He can be reached at <>. For more about the Planning and Conservation League, visit .

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) makes it a legal requirement for local governments to study the impacts of any proposed action before they make growth-related decisions. In recent years, state legislation has emphasized that local governments must fully explore water supply issues in connection with their development-related decisions (see Government Code section 66473.7).

While CEQA implementation takes time and costs money, the required analytical process is actually a prescription for good government. Before significant decisions are made about any new development or project, the decision-makers need to prepare a draft analysis of likely impacts and allow interested persons, including any member of the public, to comment on items or issues the draft analysis might have missed or misunderstood. Finally, the local government needs to respond substantively to all comments made.

Take Water Supply Issues Seriously

The importance of making informed
decisions about water supply issues can hardly be exaggerated. In many communities, water supplies are already over-subscribed, and the experts on global warming advise us that our current supplies and sources may be diminished as climate change occurs. Municipal, industrial and agricultural uses of water need a sustained and reliable supply, and that’s an economic — not an environmental — issue.

Local government officials need to be sure they understand exactly how a reliable water supply will be provided before making a commitment to any new development requiring new water. Governments that don’t address the water supply issues up front, ensuring a long-term, sustainable and reliable water supply for any new development project they’re asked to approve, are really putting existing water users — their current constituents — at risk. Constituents increasingly understand this reality and are holding their local elected officials accountable.

Water supply issues are extremely critical, and serious social, economic, environmental and political consequences will accrue for any local government not paying attention to them. Demand a rigorous analysis and CEQA review of water supplies before significant new developments are approved, and don’t avoid any problems uncovered by the analysis. Follow that prescription and you’ll almost always come to the right decision. This advice works at both the planning and project implementation levels. General plans, specific plans and other longer-term planning documents should explicitly consider and resolve water supply issues. And, of course, each significant new project should be approved only when the local government can make an affirmative determination that adequate water supplies will be there for the long term.

Demand for Water Can Be Met

Despite the fact that water supplies are undeniably constrained (and even oversubscribed, in some cases) and climate change is likely to constrain them even more, there is more than enough water to go around — and that includes enough water to maintain the environmental and biological integrity of our rivers, streams, estuaries and wetlands.

In November 2004, the Planning and Conservation League (PCL) published An Investment Strategy for California Water. This publication (available online at concluded that new demands for water associated with California’s projected growth could not only be met, but could be met economically and without damaging California’s environment. The following year, the state Department of Water Resources essentially confirmed PCL’s findings in The California Water Plan Update 2005, Bulletin 160-05.

What are the key findings about water and growth? Here’s the short list:

  • According to the state Department of Finance, California’s population will increase by about 12 million people by the year 2030. Those new people will need an additional 2 million to 2.4 million acre feet of water each year.
  • The environment needs more water, too. To restore river ecosystems, an additional 1 million acre feet of water must be returned to the environment.
  • In total, we need to come up with almost 3.4 million acre feet of “new” water if we’re going to meet California’s needs.

Although 3.4 million acre feet is a big number, here’s the good news:

  • We can provide 2 million to 2.3 million acre feet of water by investing in urban water conservation strategies that are already proven. The growth of Los Angeles over the past 20 years has not required mammoth new water projects. In fact, Los Angeles has simply found ways to use its existing supplies more efficiently.
  • Very conservatively, 300,000 to 600,000 acre feet can be gained from agricultural water conservation.
  • Water recycling can produce another 1.5 million acre feet.
  • Groundwater desalination (not ocean desalination) and increasing stormwater infiltration can produce 1.9 million acre feet.

So the running total of water supply is clearly in excess of the new demand expected from continued growth.

No Dams to Meet Demand

New dams cost a lot, take a long time to build and destroy important riparian and other environments. But local government officials concerned about how to maintain the healthy growth and development of their community don’t need a new dam. They don’t need to stop development either. All they need to do is relate new growth to the new water supplies that reasonable investments in conservation, water use efficiency, stormwater recapture and water recycling can provide.

The Local Government Commission, an organization composed of elected officials from both city and county governments, has developed the Ahwahnee Water Principles (see “Ahwahnee Water Principles Provide a Blueprint for Ensuring Future Clean Water Supplies,” July 2006, Western City, online at Local governments including Ventura County, San Luis Obispo, the City of Ventura, Richmond, Morgan Hill, Rolling Hills Estates and Port Hueneme have all taken the pledge. These local governments commit to a compact, mixed-use and walkable community design. They build water-holding areas like creek beds, recessed athletic fields and cisterns into their topography. They maximize recycled water use within the local community and make sure that outdoor landscaping is water thrifty, not water consumptive.

The net result is that forward-thinking local communities are solving what could be thought of as a “water and growth crisis” in a way that makes things look easy.

You know, maybe it really is.

About This Series

“How Should California Grow?” is a series of articles appearing in Western City through the end of 2007. This article is the fourth installment in the series.

The series presents a variety of perspectives on growth-related topics. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect League policy.

To read past articles in the series, visit

This article appears in the August 2007 issue of Western City
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