Researchers optimistic about new housing despite California drought

BySpencer Christian and Tim Didion KGO logo
Thursday, December 30, 2021
Researchers optimistic about new housing even with drought
Researchers explain how to build thousands of new housing units we desperately need, while ensuring there's enough water for an expanding population.

MARIN COUNTY, Calif. (KGO) -- It's the decades-long conflict even our recent surge of storms can't wash away -- How to build the thousands of new housing units we desperately need and at the same time ensure there's enough water for an expanding population.

"Certainly we recognize the issue that municipalities all around California have got water problems," says John Goodwin with the Association of Bay Area Governments.

"And those are more acute in some areas, less acute in others. But again, throughout California, specifically here in the Bay Area, we have a chronic housing problem and housing affordability problem. So there is a tension between the acute water problems and the chronic housing problems," he said.

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While the recent storms may bring short-term relief, many experts believe a true end to the current drought, could still be a long ways off.

Marin County is currently working on plans for a new emergency water pipeline across the Richmond - San Rafael Bridge. While other water agencies point to diminishing groundwater, that could take years to fully replenish.

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In a report from the California Department of Water Resources, 2021 is the second driest year in state history.

Still, at least one Bay Area group believes the housing challenges can be tackled with long-term planning.

"So we took a look at this question of whether the Bay Area could grow the way it's expected to grow, build the housing that it needs to build, and use no more water than it presently does, or even less," says Laura Feinstein, Ph.D., director of sustainability and resilience at the public policy non-profit SPUR.

In a recent study with partners at the Pacific Institute, the group found that existing solutions could have a major impact.

"And we found that just with using available technology that's on the shelf right now for people's homes and businesses being able to consider continue to get more efficient as they have been of late, the Bay Area could add 2.2 million new homes in the next 50 years and use no more water or even less than it does today," says Feinstein.

RELATED: EBMUD begins drawing water from Sacramento River to relieve drought problems

The study argues that the average home loses roughly 10% of its water because of leaks. Water intensive landscaping is another drain. On the flip-side, they found building denser housing with smaller yard space and more efficient water systems, including recycling, would pay off over time.

"Our modeling is really looking 50 years out. And it's looking at how you build in these very gradual efficiencies over time and realize big gains over a period of decades. And that doesn't happen overnight," she adds.

The researchers point to trending since the 1980s, saying the Bay Area has been able to cut water use by about 25% even while the population grew.

While acknowledging the current crisis facing regional water districts, John Goodwin says Bay Area planners are trying to keep a long-term view, explaining that housing planned now, might take years to break ground.

"So the focus for ABAG and for MTC has been on solving the decades-long housing crisis, specifically, so in terms of prioritizing these emergencies, our focus has been on housing."

And hopefully, including solutions that can help impact both crises, moving forward.