Tue, Aug 25, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Amid drought, California building boom refuses to slow

With the US state in the grip of a four-year dry spell, how much more development can the region handle?

By Adam Nagourney  /  NY Times News Service, FOLSOM, California

Illustration: Yusha

Evert Palmer has a vision for Folsom, California, a city famous for its state prison — 10,200 new homes spread across the rolling hills to the south, bringing in a flood of new jobs, new business and 25,000 more people.

Yes, Palmer, the city manager, is well aware that Folsom Lake — the sole source of water for this gold rush outpost near Sacramento — is close to historically low levels and stands as one of the most disturbing symbols of the four-year drought that has gripped the state. Also, that Folsom is under orders to reduce its water consumption by 32 percent as part of statewide cutbacks.

However, Palmer, like other officials who approved the ambitious plan to expand the city, said he is confident that there is enough water to allow Folsom’s population to grow to nearly 100,000 by 2036. It would be economic folly to run things any other way, he said.

“That would create unnecessary economic hardships here to benefit others, and while I am a citizen of the planet, I am also paid to manage the home team,” Palmer said.

The drought that has overrun California — forcing severe cutbacks in water for farms, homeowners and businesses — has run up against an economic resurgence across much of the state. It is forcing communities to balance a robust demand for new housing with concerns that the drought is not cyclical, but rather the start of permanent, more arid conditions caused by climate change.

At a time when California Governor Jerry Brown has warned of a new era of limits, the spate of construction — including a boom in building that began even before the drought emergency was declared — is raising fundamental questions about just how much additional development California can accommodate. The answer in places like this — and in other parched sections of the state, from the Coachella Valley to Bakersfield to the California coast — is, it seems, plenty.

“They say we cannot stop building and developing because weather is cyclical,” Folsom planning commissioner Jennifer Lane said last month as she drove around Folsom Lake, where expanses of lake bed were exposed to the sky and recreational boaters had been ordered to get their vessels out of the water.

“I say we are looking at this whole new world here,” she said. “Global warming. Where are we going to get the water? As a planning commissioner, I say let us be prudent. Is this the new normal?”

While state authorities can set some requirements on how things get built, such as recent restrictions on the size of lawns permitted for new homes, decisions on land use are left largely to local city councils and planning commissions, and water consumption is not necessarily the first concern of local officials as they approve development plans.

“It is very hard to be a local elected official and say: ‘No,’” said Max Gomberg, senior environmental scientist for climate change at California State Water Resources Control Board, the agency with primary responsibility for regulating water supply. “All the reasons to say: ‘Yes’ are very powerful, starting with tax revenues.”

California has a population of about 38 million; it is projected to hit just less than 50 million by 2050. More than 280,000 housing units have been approved for construction across the Sacramento region alone, where Lake Oroville, a major source of water for the region, has also fallen to alarmingly low levels. As has been the case in previous droughts, there is no evidence that falling water supplies have resulted in any decline in construction.

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