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SMa.r.t. Column: Water Woes Not Be Gone

Re-visiting a column of ours from 2014. The more things change, the more they stay the same.  

“Water Woes” from 12/29/14 

“By now everyone knows about the drought, although some people seem to be in denial about the problem it presents. For those who haven’t heard yet, there is a 20 percent reduction in water use proposed for residents and businesses. 

However, new developments‚ some of them especially water-intensive, continue to make their way through the planning process. Even as residents try to reduce their consumption, the city’s overall consumption is well on its way to new heights. 

Santa Monica gets much of its water from its own wells, purchasing the rest from the  Metropolitan Water District. MWD water, which comes from the Colorado River, rain and snowmelt, is especially susceptible to the effects of drought, and as the water supply from the state diminishes, the cost of that water will rise. 

To reduce the impact of an unstable state water supply, the City developed a plan to be water self-sufficient by 2020. Included in this plan are construction of two new wells, and various other water-conservation measures and treatment plant improvements. 

As with our current wells, new wells will draw from a vulnerable underground supply shared, and desired, by others, with no current restrictions on who can draw upon that underground source. 

New conservation measures, while laudable, will not reverse the rising water-consumption trend, because conservation cannot trump an increase in the number of users, and the proposed increased fees do not ‘make’ more water. 

In January 2013 the city consumed approximately 10 million gallons of water per day. We were asked to conserve a mere 200,000 gals per day, a reduction of two gallons per day per person, or 2 percent. One year later, in January of 2014, water consumption had jumped to 12 million gallons per day, a 20 percent increase! And now, after the State declared a severe drought and asked for voluntary conservation efforts, consumption has risen another 2 percent. 

Today we’re faced with mandatory cuts at the risk of significant penalties. Yet we see no serious attempt to put the brakes on excessive development, with several development agreements having just been presented to the Planning Commission and City Council. 

A 12-story mixed-use commercial/residential/hotel project proposed downtown, will have enormous impact on existing infrastructure, especially water demand. Two hotels have already been approved, and another very large mixed-use project at the Fred Segal site, as well as eight mixed-use residential/commercial projects in a four-block area along Lincoln Blvd.

Twenty-two projects in a 12-block area of downtown have applied for development agreements.  And this does not include the three proposed condo/hotel projects on Ocean Avenue that many in this community consider ridiculously over-scaled. 

City government has not asked us to subsidize new development. but that is the net effect of continuing to encourage and process large developments that increase the city’s water consumption, especially projects substantially larger than basic zoning allows. Is this something residents want? 

This past year has been the driest in recorded California history. There was a similar dry year over 100 years ago, but our population has grown 40 times since then‚ and with indoor plumbing and hygiene changes, consumption is probably closer to 100 times what it was then. 

The City’s solutions to water shortages depend on access to resources over which the city has little control. This includes the new wells, accessing regional aquifers over which we have no control of depletion since they are available to others. And with any shortfalls provided by the wells, the City will have to purchase water from MWD, whose sources are also being depleted. 

The reliance on uncontrollable resources means that a reliable plan cannot, in fact, be prepared,  and the risk of draconian cuts and ballooning costs increases with each new project being approved. We already see proposed rate increases to account for aging infrastructure, which loses about 13% through leakage, and these costs will increase further as the infrastructure must be adapted to all the new projects approved or in the pipeline. 

The City is already doing some things right, on the water conservation side. But more must be  done: 

The city must commit to the widespread use of greywater systems, and plan for a fully greywater-enabled city within the next twenty years; 

The city should require the installation of water meters in all dwellings and apartments; Efficient metering and control systems for hotels should be mandatory; 

A more aggressive water-use policing effort throughout the City should be implemented  immediately; 

A strong rain harvesting effort is needed as well. 

It is clear that with a severe drought upon us, we should all do our part to conserve water, even as we understand that conserving water is not the same as increasing the supply. 

The State requires new developments with more than 500 units to supply their own water, exclusive of the city’s supply. Such projects must go outside the city to obtain their own water.  As part of SMa.r.t, we believe that our City’s own policies on infrastructure and development should be held to the same standard of reduced demand, including placing a hold on large projects unable to provide their own water supplies.

There are at least 2100 new units in the pipeline just downtown, but the City does not require those projects to bring their own water because none reaches the 500-unit threshold (the defunct Hines project ‘oddly’ limiting itself to 498 units). 

Residents and local businesses already carry the weight of conservation in the city, even as the daytime population swells to over 300,000 transient visitors who consume water at hotels, restaurants, beach showers, and public restrooms. There is no reason to burden residents and local businesses with the increased infrastructure costs that large developments bring, in this water-constrained environment. 

For many years, comedians and radio pundits referred to Santa Monica as “the home of the  homeless.” Let’s make sure our city will never be known as “the home of the waterless.” 

Dan Jansenson, Architect and Bob Taylor, A.I.A. for SMa.r.t.” 

That column was seven years ago. In fairness, the City has made some minor improvements,  but, the drought conditions have worsened with much of the State in extreme drought conditions and some communities running out of water, and with draconian cuts up to 40% imposed on others. 

One has to ask with what logic would the State think a good solution to solving a worsening water shortage might be to increase density and population, and why would a go-along City  Council chose to not join other communities that have united to fight the State mandates. In the case of Santa Monica, the council, by not opposing, is agreeing to a potential 20% population increase in our 8.4 sq mi. beach town. Not very good math it seems. 

Bob Taylor, Architect, AIA for SMa.r.t. 

Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow 

Ron Goldman, Architect FAIA; Dan Jansenson, Architect, Building & Fire-Life Safety  Commissioner; Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Planning Commissioner; Robert H. Taylor,  Architect AIA: Thane Roberts, Architect; Sam Tolkin, Architect; Marc L. Verville M.B.A.,  CPA (inactive); Michael Jolly, AIRCRE

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