Fighting for water in Southwest subdivisions

Suburbanites in the Southwest are looking to secure water:

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As the Southwest enters its second decade of megadrought, and the Colorado River sinks to alarminly low levels, Rio Verde, a largely upscale community that real-estate agents bill as North Scottsdale, though it is a thirty-mile drive from Scottsdale proper, is finding itself on the front lines of the water wars. Some homeowners’ wells are drying up, while others who get water delivered have recently been told that their source will be cut off on January 1st. “It’s going to turn into the Hunger Games,” Harris said grimly. “Like, a scrambling-for-your-toilet-water-every-month kind of thin.” The fight over how best to address the issue is pitting neighbors against one another. “Water politics are bad politics,” Thomas Loquvam, the general counsel and vice-president of EPCOR, the largest private water utility in the Southwest, told me. “You know that saying, ‘Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting’? That’s very true in Arizona…

Most Foothills residents draw their water from wells, but several hundred homes sit on land without reliable access to water, so the inhabitants rely on cisterns, which they fill with a delivery from a water truck every month or so. When Cindy Goetz moved to Arizona from Illinois, in 2012, she had never heard of hauled water. “But I did some research on it – you know, is a well better, or is hauled water better? And my decision was, hauled water is better,” she told me. “A well can get contaminated, it can run dry. How about just pay a little extra to have someone bring it in from the city? It’s already drinkable. I asked [my real-estate agent] and he said that it’s done a lot in Arizona. And it wasn’t like a homestead out in the middle of nowhere. There were streets and power and phone lines and all that. I assumed it would be O.K. It’s wasn’t presented as, ‘By the way, it could stop.'”…

Homeowners who didn’t have wells were suddenly uncertain that they’d be able to wash their dishes or flush their toilets. Some water haulers reassured their customers that they could find water for them, at least for now. Hornewer, who runs a water-hauling company, told me that not all haulers were scrupulous about the legality of their sources. “To them, it’s just kind of like the Old West,” he said. “If the water’s there, grab it. If you want to get it from Phoenix illegally, sure, you can do that. But that’s a short-term fix.”

Some residents came to believe that the best long-term solution for the hauled-water homes was to form a Domestic Water Improvement District, or DWID. The DWID, as a political subdivision, would be able to buy land to extract water from one of the few aquifers in Arizona that still had excess capacity for sale. A DWID could also get funding, or apply for grants, to eventually build water-treatment infrastructure for the area.

But not everyone in the Foothills wanted their neighbors to form a new government entity. Rumors spread on Facebook, claiming that the DWID was a power grab. People who had once acted as if worries about water scarcity were overblown began imagining their own elaborate worst-case scenarios: What if the DWID imposed taxes, or used the power of eminent domain to seize non-members’ wells, or put liens on people’s houses? What was next, an H.O.A.? “They have the power to condemn, whether they claim they’re going to use it or not,” Christy Jackman, the DWID’s most vocal opponent, told me. “They do have the power to put in streetlights, to pave areas. So here’s this little group, and they’ll have those powers.” The pro-DWID faction grew frustrated that their neighbors, many of whom had wells, were blocking their ability to secure water for themselves. “It’s the haves and the have-nots,” Nabity said. “Literally, some neighbors were like, ‘Screw you guys. You bought a property that doesn’t have water. That’s not my issue.’”

The suburban sprawl of the American Dream assumes there is cheap, accessible water for the new homes. Few residents would even think about water not being available unless there are some unusual circumstances.

So what then happens to sprawling subdivisions when water is hard to obtain? The article above discussed multiple solutions that either do not work well when a whole region has limited water or when they run up against the preferences of suburbanites.

Since having water is essential for life, including in the suburbs, it will be interesting to see what solutions are reached. One solution – not building sprawling communities – does not seem like a viable option since there are many people who want to live in such settings and Americans have constructed such developments for decades.

The scale of agriculture in California

A story about recharging aquifers in California to help beat droughts and high water usage includes this summary of how much food California produces:

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The stakes are high: California grows more than a third of the vegetables and two-thirds of the fruits and nuts eaten in the United States, dominating production of artichokes, avocados, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, celery, dates, grapes, garlic, olives, plums, peaches, walnuts, pistachios, lemons, sweet rice, and lettuce. The Central Valley is America’s agricultural heartland, crucially important to the state’s economy and the groceries of the nation. More wine grapes are grown there than in California’s wine country, more almonds than anywhere else on earth. There are more than a quarter of a million acres devoted to tomatoes, which when plucked, weighed, canned, and shipped add up to around a third of all the processed tomato stuff eaten worldwide. And that’s not to mention all the region’s livestock—chickens, pigs, cows.

When I go to the grocery store, I am not thinking about what goes into all of the food there and instead just enjoy the many options I have within and across stores. When I have a little more time to consider the process, two thoughts come to mind:

  1. The amazing ability for humans to produce this amount of food from this amount of land. I know California is a big state and a lot of people live there and it is still astounding how much food is produced.
  2. The complexity to pull this all off plus the burden on the natural systems that make this all possible. If one piece gets out of whack or the climate changes or human patterns change, the whole system needs to adjust.

It will take significant work to keep the system going and the food growing. While many dystopian works hint at the trouble that would come when normal food systems are disrupted, there would be serious problems if California cannot produce food in the way it does now.

Water shortage hits the Colorado River and the agreement governing water distribution dates back to 1922

Updating infrastructure to meet new challenges is an issue in numerous areas, including in securing water. The current case of the Colorado River illustrates how updating is needed:

The 1922 compact overestimated how much water was in the river system to begin with. And now there’s even less. On top of that, the rules about divvying up the water – whether you’re a city, an irrigation district, or a rancher – essentially operate like dibs or calling shotgun in a car.

The phrase that people like to use in the West is “first in time, first in right.” The water users who arrived first in these places where the water is used and claim the water when they got there, hold the most senior water rights, and their water rights remain senior no matter who comes after them. Those senior water rights trump junior water rights even to this day, with an exception: The law says that if you don’t use those senior water rights to their full extent every year that they could be confiscated and given to somebody with more junior water rights…

Why has the frontier mindset survived to 2021 in the way we think about and legislate water?

Part of it is cultural. The culture of the West survives. In the north, in the mountains, it’s a culture of rugged individualism, and in the south, it is still a bit individualistic and conservative. The rights to the water track to the history of the place, not to how it has evolved in more modern times. [These] cities didn’t exist in the mid-1800s, so they have very junior water rights now, even though that’s where most of the people are. So literally the largest volume of water goes to the people in places with the deepest historical roots.

Future battles about access to water will be fierce, particularly in places where less water is available than in the past.

Will this slow growth in states where growth has been a feature of life for decades? This could affect communities, metropolitan areas, states, and a whole region.

Does this help break the obsession Americans have with green grass lawns? The drought in California half a decade ago could have been just a taste of the future.

Does this become a major issue in elections? How exactly does a water distribution renegotiation occur, particularly if elected officials have little direct influence?

What would a more collectivist mindset to water look like in the United States compared to a more individualistic approach or one rooted in history in the area? I could imagine a quick switch of systems would be difficult but phasing in changes over time might be possible.

Halting new development out West due to lack of water

Drought conditions in Utah and other Western states means communities are rethinking development:

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So this spring, Oakley, about an hour’s drive east of Salt Lake City, imposed a construction moratorium on new homes that would connect to the town’s water system. It is one of the first towns in the United States to purposely stall growth for want of water in a new era of megadroughts. But it could be a harbinger of things to come in a hotter, drier West…

Yet cheap housing is even scarcer than water in much of Utah, whose population swelled by 18 percent from 2010 to 2020, making it the fastest-growing state. Cities across the West worry that cutting off development to conserve water will only worsen an affordability crisis that stretches from Colorado to California…

Developers in a dry stretch of desert sprawl between Phoenix and Tucson must prove they have access to 100 years’ of water to get approvals to build new homes. But extensive groundwater pumping — mostly for agriculture — has left the area with little water for future development.

Many developers see a need to find new sources of water. “Water will be and should be — as it relates to our arid Southwest — the limiting factor on growth,” said Spencer Kamps, the vice president of legislative affairs for the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona. “If you can’t secure water supply, obviously development shouldn’t happen.”

Critics of sprawl have discussed this for decades: new subdivisions and development in arid areas taps already precious water supplies. It is not just about drinking water; it includes the water used for lawns, agriculture, parks, and other uses that come with expanding populations.

As the article notes, numerous communities are trying to encourage homeowners and residents to use less water. Replace lawns. Limit watering. Use greywater. Some have argued that water in the United States is too cheap, encouraging more use.

But, simply having more people and business might be the problem. If drought conditions continue, it will be worth watching how development – often assumed to be necessary for a good community – is treated.

Pushing to ban grass in Las Vegas

Americans like grass lawns. Las Vegas is not an environment where it is easy to grow grass. What has to give? The city of Las Vegas wants to ban ornamental grass:

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Las Vegas-area water officials have spent two decades trying to get people to replace thirsty greenery with desert plants, and now they’re asking the Nevada Legislature to outlaw roughly 40% of the turf that’s left…

They say this ornamental grass requires four times as much water as drought-tolerant landscaping like cactus and other succulents. By ripping it out, they estimate the region can reduce annual water consumption by roughly 15% and save about 14 gallons (53 liters) per person per day…

The proposal is part of a turf war waged since at least 2003, when the water authority banned developers from planting green front yards in new subdivisions. It also offers owners of older properties the region’s most generous rebate policies to tear out sod — up to $3 per square foot…

Last year was among the driest in the region’s history, when Las Vegas went a record 240 days without measurable rainfall. And the future flow of the Colorado River, which accounts for 90% of southern Nevada’s water, is in question.

There are multiple interesting components to this. Here are at least a few:

  1. I remember flying into Las Vegas a few years ago. The difference between the desert and the city and suburbs was remarkable. I do not remember too much grass outside of the very green golf courses that stood out. Even without much grass, the city in the desert is a different sight.
  2. As the article notes elsewhere, this sounds like efforts in California during their big drought. At the same time, the article also mentions how other locations like Phoenix and Salt Lake City are not interested in curbing the grass.
  3. More Americans than just people in Las Vegas might be rethinking the lawn. In addition to the need for watering, there is fertilizing, mowing, keeping out weeds and leaves, designing features, and more. Who has time and money for all of that?
  4. Las Vegas is a sprawling metro area and the single-family homes of American suburbs are often surrounded by green lawns. It is part of the package tied to kids playing and a green nature buffer around the private dwelling. Are the suburbs the same without these patches of grass?

Perhaps this becomes a model for communities, in the desert or not, across the United States.

A few fake LA lawns watered as CA drought continues

The lawn may be so culturally powerful that fake lawns need to be watered:

But a CBS Los Angeles investigation found the water has not stopped flowing outside DWP buildings. Rather, the DWP has installed sprinklers to soak its fake grass for minutes at a time…

On a recent Thursday morning, sprinklers ran for six minutes, soaking fake grass outside the South LA substation. Even an area completely devoid of grass — real or fake — was inundated by water from sprinklers.

The excess water ran down the sidewalk and toward the street in an apparent violation of city code stating, “No customer of the Department shall use water in a manner that causes or allows excess or continuous water flow or runoff onto an adjoining sidewalk, driveway, street, gutter or ditch.” Such runoff is prohibited even for recycled “gray” water.

I realize that this story appears to be driven less by concern for water supplies – which are an ongoing issue in California – and more about neighbors expressing anger that they have to conserve water lest they be fined while the city appears to be wasting it. In other words: big government should follow its own rules. This could be a microcosm of national politics.

Yet, could there be a good reason for watering the fake lawn?

“We’re rinsing the grass to make it more sanitary,” said Richard Harasick, director of water operations at the DWP…

“We’re really just trying to wash out dog pee,” he said.

So it is dogs that utilize the fake lawn. Who knew that even replacement lawns need so much regular maintenance due to regular use. (Some need to be painted.) And getting people to stop their dogs from using the replacement lawn may be difficult.

Perhaps a solution here is to get rid of the fake lawn entirely. A common sight in recent years in California is to use lawns replaced with other features like drought resistant plants or stones. There was even a rebate program implemented for this as the state aimed to replace a lot of turf.

One takeaway to this story: it is hard for Americans to get rid of lawns as well as reactions to their use and maintenance.

Install an artificial plant to hide nearby McMansion

Have an unsightly McMansion next door? Install artificial plantings:

A San Marcos, California based company, Geranium Street Floral, has installed their artificial plants at many hip remodeled homes throughout Southern California. The company recently installed an artificial hedge at a remodeled property in North Hollywood that no doubt greatly improved the view in the backyard of the custom remodeled home. Geranium Street specializes in creating backyard privacy with their artificial plants.

Geranium Street president, Bob Smith explains that with the advent of “McMansions” throughout Southern California, the need for privacy is at an all time high. “Before, you had houses in a neighborhood that were all basically the same height, so privacy wasn’t much of an issue, but now they are tearing the old houses down and building houses that tower over those of their neighbors – suddenly everyone feels like they are living in a fish bowl. We have ways to solve that problem quickly with our artificial plants,” said Smith…

Bob Smith explained that many real estate developers have found the quick solution to their privacy and decorative needs by installing artificial plants. “Whereas it may take months to grow real vines and plant real trees, we can come in and install our artificial plants in a day or two. The new artificial trees and plants look more realistic than they ever did before, and they are very durable,” said Smith.

Four quick thoughts:

  1. Given the water issues in California, I’m surprised this press release doesn’t include the rationale of saving money on plantings. Have a hedge and no water is required.
  2. It would be interesting to think about how these installations play with the idea of “nature.” Some would say the real plantings in the suburban sprawl like that found in southern California are already poor imitations of nature. But, what if those same plantings aren’t even real? Is this a more honest admission of the lack of nature? These options are billed as durable but they likely provide a different aesthetic and physical experience.
  3. Theoretically, such hedges could be built to any size of shape. McMansions can come in all sorts of sizes and shapes and a company could get pretty creative in how an artificial hedge hides the ugly house next door.
  4. What do artificial plants do to property values? They may be durable but I imagine they could be viewed as tacky or lower class.

The continually green lawns of some California leaders and celebrities

The drought shaming continues in California. First, CBS highlights some of the biggest water wasters in the Bay Area:

The district released the names and consumption in response to a public records request by the San Jose Mercury News and other media outlets covering the drought.

Beane released a statement through the Oakland A’s.

“Three irrigation leaks were recently discovered and corrected. We were more than displeased and embarrassed by the usage,” Beane said.

Retired Chevron Oil executive George Kirkland tops the list by using more than 12,000 gallons of water a day – 48 times the district average. He also pointed to previously undetected seepage.

Here is an older gallery where CBS highlights the greenery outside the homes of numerous celebrities. This link includes a picture and this text:

Despite the sweeping water regulations imposed by California state officials this spring, Jenny’s “block” remains green.

And though the state has only issued eight $100 fines and two $200 fines to water wasters up until this point, Lopez may soon face a much heftier fine if she wants to keep her lawn this way.

Gov. Jerry Brown is calling for legislators to enforce fines of up to $10,000 for residents and businesses that waste the most water, as California cities struggle to meet mandatory conservation targets.

I imagine reporting to the public about leaders and celebrities can be quite effective in reducing the water usage. Few famous people want to be seen as wasters of natural resources when others are sacrificing. (I suspect this would be quite different if there wasn’t much of a drought or if the owners could claim commercial revenues or jobs on these properties – this is what the Las Vegas casinos do.) Even the higher proposed fines, $10,000, wouldn’t matter much to some people. While the shaming might be more effective (reducing water usage and helping politicians look like they are standing up for the interests of everyone), couldn’t the state also use the money? If celebrities wanted to pay big fines, wouldn’t this help balance some budgets?

California argument that new pools save water over lawns

A painted lawn or desert yard may not be necessaryinstalling a pool can save water over the years.

The industry took a huge hit during the recession, but business is back. Industry tracking firm Construction Monitor says there were 11,000 pools installed in California last year, the highest since 2007. The state is on track for 13,000 this year in a drought…

“It certainly concerns people. and I think our business would be much better without the drought, but that’s due to some misperceptions about pools and water use,” he said. “Even in the first year, when we replace lawn, you experience water savings by putting in a swimming pool and in the subsequent years after that, the savings just add up.”

The numbers vary depending on what you calculate. And Orange County Water Agency found it takes a couple of years to begin saving water by installing a pool, but Harbeck crunched the numbers for the Larsen’s pool and says it will save more than 6,600 gallons in the first year and more than 17,000 gallons each year when compared to watering the lawn it’s replacing…

The pool industry says owners have to do their part too by using pool covers and maintaining low water levels to preserve every drop in the drought.

I imagine there may be skepticism that this could be such a win-win-win: water saved, happy residents sitting by their new pools, and the pool industry with lots of new orders. But, if the numbers really do indicate that pools save money over time compared to lawns, would the facts/science win out? Still, it sounds like replacing the lawn with no pool would save even more water.

Cities ineffectively selling water conservation with sex, emotions, and shame

Several American cities are making different marketing pitches for residents to save water:

The bus ads, billboards, and throatily narrated videos have been entertaining and educating S.F. residents since last year, but they recently picked up steam in the media. And last week, the S.F. Public Utilities Commission announced they’re throwing another $300,000 into extending the campaign, for more signs about full frontal washing machines and advice to nozzle your hose

If Exhibit A is San Francisco’s conservation porn, then Exhibit B is Los Angeles’ heart-string-tugging “Save the Drop” campaign. Launched by the Mayor’s office in April, it features an adorable, sad-eyed cartoon water-drop. “Water isn’t angry about your 20-minute shower. Just disappointed,” reads one poster. The drop, also featured in a series of videos narrated by Steve Carrell, takes the opposite approach from San Francisco’s cheeky sex-positive ads: It’s all about the emotional appeal. Enter the violins…

Denver, Colorado, has taken a decidedly different tack with their conservation campaigning. Perhaps taking a hint from the schadenfreude-fueled hashtaggery known as #droughtshaming, Denver officials simply want to make you feel bad. The 2014 “Use What You Need” campaign reminds citizens not to be “that guy”—you know, the Pomeranian-owning dude who waters his lawn outside the assigned hours, or that couple who lets their sprinklers run in the rain.

And the article then goes to an expert psychologist in this field who knows whether such strategies actually get people to change their behavior:

“Mass media campaigns, by and large, are ineffective at changing behavior,” he says. “The research is really consistent in showing that what you’ll get is raised awareness—and that’s about it.

Much more effective are more active strategies that encourage people to make changes to their living situations, like rebates for replacing grass lawns or old, wasteful fixtures. “That’s where you’re going to see long-term, lasting change,” says Schultz, “rather than a short-term, immediate response you get from a billboard.”

Perhaps the cities and states running such campaigns don’t know that their marketing ploys won’t really work. But, I assume they do know this – and maybe it doesn’t matter whether it works or not. At the least, the marketing allows them to say they tried to make people aware. If the public didn’t respond appropriately, then it isn’t necessarily the government’s faulty. Plus, this kind of marketing can be rolled out fairly quickly while more effective strategies for changing behaviors may take much longer. Many elected officials have a short-term view (elections are always coming up soon) though dealing with conservation isn’t just about the immediate drought but rather also avoiding droughts in the future.