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PERSPECTIVE ON THE WATER SHORTAGE : Agriculture Holds Key to Future Plenitude, Not Developers : New homes, with water-saving fixtures throughout, are nearly 25% more water efficient than older homes.

<i> Laer Pearce owns an Irvine-based public relations agency and writes a newsletter on environmental issues for the building industry</i>

Reminiscent of the meatpacker that said it used every part of the pig but the squeal, those who wish to stop new home development seem capable of rendering nearly any conceivable issue into an argument against new homes. The current argument that new home development should be stopped because of the drought is based more on fervor than fact, however, since these are the very developments that do the most to reduce water use.

Many cling to the belief that Orange County’s growth is still the result of incoming floods of outsiders. That is no longer the case; the flood is more one of little squirts--our own children--because most of the county’s growth is now internally generated. Consequently, most new homes shelter our own growing families and those of our children. These homes don’t result in increased water use, then. They only result in the water that would have been used anyway coming out of new faucets.

That is a considerable improvement.

New homes, equipped with water-saving fixtures from the kitchen to the bathroom, are nearly 25% more water efficient than older homes, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. This drop, from 77 gallons per capita per day to just 60, is the result of such fixtures as new shower heads that save seven gallons per shower and toilets that save more than two gallons per flush. One-quarter of water-related arguments against new housing go down the drain once this is realized.

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But household water use is a rather insignificant portion of overall municipal water consumption. Orange County’s biggest water use is landscape irrigation. Here new home developments offer an even greater degree of conservation versus older neighborhoods.

Well-planned new communities such as Irvine and Mission Viejo use water reclamation systems, so greenbelts, medians and parks are irrigated by recycled water that is wasted in older communities. New communities use drought-tolerant landscaping and efficient irrigation, including computer-controlled systems that measure the soil’s water content and operate only when needed. These new developments showcase water conservation techniques, while older neighborhoods are examples of how not to landscape and irrigate in a semiarid climate.

Instead of criticizing new home development, a much more positive tack is to look at the larger picture.

The Metropolitan Water District, which provides 70% of our county’s water, is hurt more by politics than by drought. While the drought has certainly diminished water levels, look what politics has done: It has halved the amount of water we will be able to draw from the Colorado River, it defeated the Peripheral Canal and it is threatening sources in the Sierra Nevada. Most seriously, it is preventing formulation of a much-needed statewide water conservation and allocation policy.

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Unfortunately, the political water wars between Southern California and its water sources to the east and north pit brother unknowingly against brother. Residents of mountain hamlets, the San Francisco Bay Area and the Southland alike are pipsqueaks fighting each other for drops, while largely ignoring the state’s main water consumer: agriculture.

Less than 5% of Orange County’s water goes to agricultural use, but 83% of our water statewide is used on farms. To put this in perspective, consider that more water is used irrigating California’s alfalfa crop than is consumed by the entire Los Angeles and San Francisco metropolitan areas combined--and alfalfa is but one of the four big water users in California agriculture.

Most of this water is purchased at government-subsidized rates by agribusiness operations. They use loopholes to gain water subsidies meant to protect small family farms. As a result, they pay as little as $2.50 per acre-foot for water that costs the Metropolitan Water District $19 per acre-foot. Of course, MWD passes its higher cost on to us.

Even if the building industry discovers new ways to greatly reduce residential water consumption, the total saved would be a drop in the bucket compared with what agribusiness could conserve through a tiny percentage decrease in water use. In fact, a UC Davis study recently showed that a 10% decrease in agriculture water consumption would meet water needs of the state’s urban population for 20 years.

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A comprehensive state water strategy could accomplish a balancing of urban, agricultural, recreational and environmental water needs. A good first step of such a strategy would be to require agribusiness to pay a non-subsidized price for water so it has an incentive to conserve. Learning from such countries as Israel, which have mastered water-conserving farming, California’s agricultural sector could become a world leader in efficient irrigation.

The potential savings are vast. In Israel, highly efficient irrigation systems have reduced the amount of water used per acre of farm by 50% to 70%. From 1951 to 1985, the amount of land under irrigation in Israel grew 335%, while agricultural water use barely doubled, because just 20% of the country’s irrigation water is lost.

In the attacks on well-planned new developments that offer water-efficient homes and drought-tolerant landscaping, we see a continuation of the kind of political manipulation and blame-shifting that keeps Californians from doing what must be done to protect our precious water resources.

Orange County has a long history of carefully managing its water supply. Instead of bickering among ourselves, we should build on our success to date and encourage the rest of the state to get on with creating a statewide water resource management plan.

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