Are California's swimming pools guzzling precious water?

Could the drought put a crimp in California's swimming pool industry?

Never mind the lawn care industry; the people who may be most threatened by California's expanding restrictions on water use are pool builders. 

"Our members almost got wiped out during the recession," says John Norwood, president of the California Pool and Spa Assn. "In 2013 and 2014 we started to see a pickup, then we walked right into the drought."

Next to lawn-watering, pool-filling has become a prime target of local authorities seeking to meet Gov. Jerry Brown's mandate for sharp cuts in residential water use. For Norwood's association, fighting restrictions has become a full-time job: "In the last three weeks," he told me, "we've probably interacted with 30 cities." (Disclosure: I'm a pool owner.)

The group's main argument is that restrictions on pool-filling are premature as long as homeowners are still allowed to water their lawns two or three times a week. In most cases, Norwood says, he has managed to stave off the most draconian regulations, possibly with the assistance of pool-owning voters. Some communities went through with new rules anyway, typically aimed at discouraging new pool construction by prohibiting their filling, as Beverly Hills did in April. 

Some have gone further--the South Coast Water District of southern Orange County, which includes Dana Point, South Laguna and parts of San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano, has barred refilling an existing pool more than once a month, a rule that appears aimed at keeping refilling to no more than 1 foot a month. The South Coast district also forbids watering outdoor landscaping more than once a week, or filling or refilling purely ornamental ponds.

These restrictions go right to the heart of the swimming pool's allure for people in semi-arid climes. Besides providing relief from the heat, water features traditionally have been a way to show off affluence: how better to demonstrate wealth than by the ostentatious use of a scarce resource? That's why water becomes part of the decor in places like oil-rich desert kingdoms and explains the elaborate fountain and pool fronting the Bellagio in Las Vegas, one of the driest spots in the land. 

Indeed, Norwood fears that the drought may turn pool installations into a socially unacceptable activity. "People may worry about what their neighbors will think," he says.

The strategy of Norwood's group has focused thus far on downplaying the water cost of residential pools. Their argument is that pools lose about as much water by evaporation as is spent on watering a lawn of equal square footage, or even less. This is both true and not so true; the equivalence depends on the frequency and amount of one's lawn watering and of course the nature of the gardening. It's also affected by incorporating the area of pool decking, which uses no water, into the calculation.

On the plus side, pool evaporation can be sharply reduced--by 50% to 90%, by the use of a solar cover, a practice Norwood's group endorses. It also advises turning off waterfalls and fountains and checking for leaks.   

Another approach is to remind authorities at the local and state level that the pool and spa industry comprises "tens of thousands of small business owners and employees" and generates "millions of dollars in economic output." He estimates that about 12,000 new pools are built in California per year, on average. 

For now, it's likely that pool construction demand is tied more to the availability of financing than the availability of water; the industry got cratered during the recession because home price declines wiped out the home equity lines commonly used to pay for the work.  But as the drought continues, the pressure from water restrictions will only grow more intense. Pool owners should hang on for a tough ride and keep their pools covered in the meantime.

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