After two years of intense lobbying that pitted two of California's most formidable forces--farmers and developers--the state Legislature has passed a landmark bill requiring cities and counties to consider the availability of water before building new suburbs.
The bill, touted as long overdue in a state where virtually every drop of water is put to some beneficial use, was thought to be facing long odds as recently as a month ago.
But the building industry removed its opposition last week in the final hours of the legislative session when it sensed that support was growing for a law that would change the state's backward approach to growth.
For years, Californians have operated on the premise that you build a suburb first and then take water from existing residents and farmers. The bill, SB 901, sponsored by Sen. Jim Costa (D-Fresno), would require local governments to consult with local water agencies about the source and availability of water for large subdivisions or so-called new towns.
For the first time, impacts on existing water users--residents, farmers, industries--would have to be weighed before builders could break dirt on these projects.
"This is landmark legislation," said Sen. Quentin Kopp (I-San Francisco). "It demonstrates a monumental change in attitudes and public policy in California. It is a milestone."
After amending the measure to answer some of the concerns of the building industry, the Senate passed the hard-fought measure Friday by a vote of 28 to 6. The previous day, the Assembly approved the measure 66-0. Both sides expect Gov. Pete Wilson to sign it into law. "This won't stop suburban sprawl, but it will ensure that water availability is given adequate consideration in the planning process," said Randele Kanouse, a legislative manager for the East Bay water district that pushed for the bill. "And that's a first for California."
In the state's new era of water limits, farmers in particular feared that future suburban growth would come at their expense without such a law. "Our concern was that agricultural water would be used as a bank for sprawl, which is an inefficient use of resources," said Mary Ann Warmerdam of the California Farm Bureau, another strong supporter of the measure.
Most of the 110 new towns popping up on California planning maps have been approved by county boards of supervisors and city councils with minimal discussion about water and impacts on existing users. When asked to identify the source of water, most simply cite ground water or the Central Valley Project or the State Water Project--sources already struggling to meet current demand.
The Costa bill would cover only projects of 500 dwelling units and larger that require an amendment to a city's or county's specific or general plan. In such instances, local officials would have to contact the local water agency, which would determine if there was adequate water over the next 20 years to meet the projected demand.
If the water agency found a shortage, the city and county would determine if this shortage created a "significant environmental effect" under the California Environmental Quality Act. If it did constitute such an effect, local officials could still approve the project through a number of ways.
They could mitigate the impact by finding a new water source or slowing down the rate of building. Or they could find that the need for new, affordable housing outweighed the effects of a water shortage.
Home builder and commercial real estate lobbies had opposed the measure on the grounds that local governments--and not outside water agencies--should be the final voice on local land-use decisions.
Supporters of the Costa bill agreed to amend the measure so that outside water agencies would not have veto power over development. Fearing a more restrictive bill in the future, building and real estate interests signed on.