In summary

Legislators promoting high-density housing need to meet up with state and local water agencies to hammer out realistic approaches to our changing reality.

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By Rick Johnson, Special to CalMatters

Rick Johnson is a retired 40-year veteran of the San Francisco water department,

Although 41 of California’s 58 counties are in drought conditions, legislators are debating bills, such as Senate Bill 9 and Senate Bill 10, that address the construction of housing to meet the state’s Regional Housing Needs Allocation.

Between 2023 and 2031, the state mandate for the nine-county Bay Area is 441,000 units, representing an expected population increase of 1,102,500. The allocation for Los Angeles County is 1,327,000 housing units to accommodate an expected population increase of 3,317,500.

The state’s propensity to accept the RHNA numbers ignores our drought conditions. Nowhere does the legislation indicate where the additional water for these units will come from, nor does it address impact on infrastructure, such as sewer lines.

Furthermore, none of these bills make mention of the California Department of Water Resources water plan through 2050.

The current version of the plan forecasts an increase of 10 million people by 2050. It also predicts multiple droughts and considers a triad of ways to deal with the state’s water needs.

First, the plan suggests the transfer of agricultural water to urban use. But what effect would that have on farm economy, food supply and prices? A good deal of agricultural land already is lying fallow due to decreased or suspended water allotments.

Second, the plan proposes more desalination plants. The latest plant being built in Huntington Beach is a twin to the plant at Carlsbad, which treats 50 million gallons per day at a cost of $1.4 billion a year. The Carlsbad plant took three years to build; the Huntington plant is expected to take nine years. Each plant can supply the daily needs of 400,000 people.

A major drawback to desalination plants is the power required to run them.  During its five years of operation, the Carlsbad plant has had to cut back to 40% capacity when San Diego, along with many other California counties, endures brownouts. 

Meeting the state mandate for the Bay Area would require the construction of two Carlsbad-type desalination plants, at a cost of $2.8 billion; Los Angeles would need eight plants, at a cost of $11.2 billion. The operating costs of these plants would come out to 2 cents per gallon of desalinated water.

Third, the water plan anticipates expanded water reuse — the use of treated wastewater for irrigation or toilet flushing — or even the blending of treated and potable water.

This is costly, however. The Orange County Water District, for example, recycles wastewater for potable uses via groundwater replenishment using an advanced process that removes “forever chemicals” (poly and perfluoroalkyl substances) at a cost of $33 million per year. Its reused water (100 million gallons per day) does not contain these chemicals due to the use of reverse osmosis treatment. Non-potable uses of more conventional tertiary-treated wastewater requires separate distribution systems and plumbing under state regulations.

Given all these challenges, wouldn’t logic dictate that experts from the state water department be brought to the table with legislators  promoting high-density housing?

Furthermore, shouldn’t water and power agencies in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles first be required to do environmental impact reports of their utilities to show whether they can support the added housing allocation numbers — during both normal and drought conditions?

The state has more than $75 billion in surplus funds for 2021. Why not put $20 billion of that into an infrastructure fund that could be drawn upon should a particular county need funds to upgrade utilities to meet RHNA housing numbers?

These ideas and others have been raised in one of the many ad hoc groups Californians formed during the pandemic, when they were able to connect with their local, state and federal governments via Zoom and see how “sausage is made.” One such group is Community Catalysts for Local Control, founder Susan Kirsch’s pushback against the Legislature’s approach to housing.

Solving our dual crises of drought and lack of affordable housing is going to require hard choices. We need to put a range of diverse perspectives and solutions on the table. Joining community groups online is a good way to start.

Editor’s note: The text was corrected Aug. 23 to clarify why expanded water reuse is costly.

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