The multi-year drought has become so bad in some parts of California that last year wells dried up and communities had to have their water hauled in by truck. Even with that emergency lifeline, residents of places like East Porterville in Tulare County had to carefully parcel out their supplies for cooking and cleaning. Toilets were “flushed” by dumping used dishwater into the bowl. Showers became a luxury.
In some historically wetter places around the Bay Area and the Central Coast, residents who never thought they would be without water also had to begin making arrangements to truck supplies in — or else abandon their homes.
Those were communities that grew up around water supplies that, while never abundant, had previously been reliable when supplies were carefully managed. But when the wells ran dry, or close to it, it became the responsibility of the state to provide emergency supplies and to offer plans to integrate those residents into a more reliable and resilient water grid.
So as Los Angeles County officials consider whether to permit landowners in pockets of the Antelope Valley to build new communities by developing arid parcels with no connection to water supplies — communities that could be made viable only with regular tanker truck trips — the response that comes immediately to mind is, “You’ve got to be kidding.”
But they’re not kidding. The Board of Supervisors is expected to consider in November whether to permit development of more than 3,000 single family residences in northern portions of the county that have no current source of water and no aqueducts, pipelines or other connections to bring it to them — except for the highways over which water trucks would pass.
It should be an easy decision, despite more than five years of engagement between county officials and owners of currently undeveloped or under-developed land. The board should say no.
There are any number of reasons, but begin with the obvious: California does not have enough water even for its current needs. Existing neighborhoods must learn to use less. When new neighborhoods are built — and yes, we will need more homes for a population that continues to grow — they ought to reflect the lessons of recent decades by being water-efficient and drought-resilient. They ought to reflect the growing understanding that the 20th century build-out of California came during a time of uncharacteristically wet years. They ought not to rely on pollution-spewing trucks to keep their thirst quenched.
People who bought land in the northern part of the county argue that they ought to be able to develop their property just as their predecessors did across the Los Angeles Basin and then in the San Fernando Valley. After all, wasn’t the Valley also a desert, without its own source of water? Didn’t all those tracts and mid-century homes become viable only because the city extended its reach to the Owens Valley and diverted an entire river?
Actually no, the San Fernando Valley was not and is not a desert. But more to the point — Los Angeles water officials and thinkers are currently figuring out how to respond to Mayor Eric Garcetti’s call to deeply slash the city’s water imports within the decade by making use of the resources it has locally, including polluted Valley groundwater basins that are due for cleanup. L.A. may always need its 20th century aqueduct links to the Owens Valley, the Colorado River and the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, but as lifelines rather than as instruments of unsustainable growth.
That’s the right way into the future for all of California — as much local self-reliance as possible, bolstered with reliable links to move water from one part of the state to another as the need arises. The number of communities that subsist on hauled water should be minimized, not expanded, and the emergency periods in which tanks are replenished by trucks should ideally be shortened, not turned into a regular state of affairs.