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Water Data Drought Prevents Good Planning, Report Finds

State laws approved seven years ago requiring water assurances for large development projects appear to be of minimal aid in determining whether the state and regions have enough water for the future. That's the conclusion of a California Research Bureau (CRB) report released with zero fanfare in August.

According to the CRB, a 2001 law requiring water verification for subdivisions of more than 500 units reached only about 7% of new units approved from 2004 through 2006. A different law approved in 2001 for large non-residential developments reached only about one-fifth of the commercial and industrial floor space built during that same period.

What researchers also found was an "incredibly frustrating" lack of data, said Rani Isaac, the economist and senior research specialist who wrote the CRB report. There is no central repository of information on development or water usage. Locating, compiling and then testing data on residential development available to public agencies took months, Isaac said. To study non-residential construction, the CRB had to purchase data from McGraw-Hill, she said.

The 14-page report concludes with this: "The paucity of data is becoming a barrier to infrastructure investment. Good decisions require good data."

The state Legislature closed its two-year session at the end of August with virtually no action on the issue of water. A $9 billion water bond proposed by Gov. Schwarzenegger and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein went nowhere, although lawmakers could consider a bond during ongoing budget negotiations.

In 2001, lawmakers approved SB 221 (Kuehl) and SB 610 (Costa). Senate Bill 221 requires a city or county to get written verification of a 20-year water supply from a public water system for subdivisions of more than 500 dwelling units. Senate Bill 610 extended an existing requirement for public water purveyors to prepare water supply assessments for large development projects, including residential projects of more than 500 units and large non-residential projects of certain square footages. The bill also amended state law to require water agencies to produce urban water management plans every five years, rather than every 20 to 25 years (see CP&DR, October 2001).

Senate Bill 221 author Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) asked the CRB to examine the impact of the 2001 legislation with the possible intent of reducing the SB 221 threshold to 250 units. What the CRB found was that the vast majority of residential and non-residential development is untouched by the two laws. About 25,000 of 356,000 new residential units created from 2004 through 2006 were in projects of more than 500 units. There were only 33 such projects, and 16 of them were in two counties Riverside and Orange. Had the threshold been 250 units, another 37,000 units in 107 projects would have come under the law.

In the non-residential sector, 157 projects containing 20.3% of the total area of nonresidential development fell within SB 610's requirements. Nearly all of these projects were in metropolitan Los Angeles or San Diego County.

Isaac concluded that California still needs more interaction between water planning and land use planning. "That way, so much doesn't have to be settled by court cases," she said, noting the number of cases involving "paper water" in recent years.

"Certainly," she added, "it seems like there is more demand than supply." Local and regional agencies and developers in water-constrained areas should know whether supplies match the predicted future demand, she said.

That's not necessarily the case, however. Development interests fought SB 221 and SB 610, had little interest in the CRB study, and have even less interest in broadening the laws.

Randy Kanouse, a lobbyist for the East Bay Municipal Utility District who helped craft the 2001 legislation, said the CRB report is of limited use. The 2001 legislation, he said, "was intended to ensure that we grow in a way that doesn't cause harm to existing communities, existing water customers." The data in the report does not determine whether that goal is being met.

Kanouse said the state needs to track water supply assessments in high-growth areas and monitor their accuracy. "We need to understand on a local level where we are facing a hardship and need a new water supply," he said.

Isaac conceded that she was cautious, as were state water agency representatives who participated in preparation of the report. Still, the report contains several suggestions the measures are not framed as recommendations that even the skeptical Kanouse considered worthwhile. Among the suggestions:

The state (either the Department of Water Resources or the State Water Resources Control Board) could collect local water assessment plans and assess whether those plans actually comply with requirements to ensure a sufficient water supply and adequate water quality.

The state could compare urban water management plans with local growth plans to determine where water could become a development constraint.

Before the Department of Real Estate issues a white paper permitting developers to sell homes in a new subdivision, the DRE could require a water certification letter from a state agency. The DRE already requires a letter from the Public Utility Commission when a private water company serves a new project.

Lawmakers could strengthen the Urban Water Management Planning Act to ensure agencies actually prepare the required plans.

Some entity, possibly the Resources Agency, could compile a database with all urban water management plans, city and county general plans, and water plans. The database would be publicly searchable, "would aid in the preparation of a new State Water Plan, and allow resource economists to do a better job of accounting for the state's current consumption," according to the CRB report.

Despite the issuance of the report a month before the end of the legislative session, and despite the governor's declaration of a drought emergency earlier this year, lawmakers largely ignored the issue of water. Kuehl, who is termed out of the Legislature, did not pursue amendments to the 2001 laws.

Assemblymembers Paul Krekorian (D-Burbank) and Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) proposed a bill that would have required new buildings to fully offset new water consumption through the implementation of conservation measures and fees that would fund water efficiencies elsewhere. Proponents, including the Planning and Conservation League, said the measure would permit development without the environmental or fiscal expense of new water projects. The provisions in the measure, AB 2153, also would have let developers bypass SB 221. However, the bill failed to pass the Assembly.

Assembly Bill 2175 (Laird) would have required a 20% reduction in per capita urban water usage by 2020 and directed DWR to demand agricultural water cutbacks of at least 500,000 acre-feet. That bill died in the Senate.

The CRB report is available on the State Library's website, www.library.ca.gov/crb/CRBSearch.aspx.