California is in its fourth year of an extreme drought. But that doesn’t stop them from building new homes – new homes in addition to the already ~14 million homes that house that house the existing 39 million people. California is currently expanding its population at a rate of approximately 10 percent per year.
California issued approximately 85,000 permits for new construction in 2014. In the first two months of 2015 the State of California issued 5483 permits for brand new construction of single family homes and 8891 permits were issued for “Multi-Family Units” – also known as “plexes”, apartments, condominiums and townhouses.
You can see in the chart below that new construction dropped off sharply when the economy crashed and banks stopped lending money. However, in the past four years, when the state has been dangerously low on water, the rate of new construction has increased.
Let’s take Coachella Valley, the heart of the California Desert, as an example. They’ve been in the news lately for the San Bernardino Forest Service’s complete lack of oversight of Nestlé pumping water out of the mountain springs without any permits to do so.
As of 2014, almost 450,000 people call Coachella Valley home. The Coachella Valley gets an average of about five inches of rain each year. Coachella Valley is home to more than 120 golf courses, 32 of which are open to the public. While these golf courses consume large quantities of water, 19 that are irrigated with treated sewage, the Coachella Valley economy absolutely depends on these golf course to survive. Eliminating those would be the death of the entire valley. But, why build more homes?
According to Realtor.com there are currently 999 homes for sale just in the City of Palm Springs, 799 in Rancho Mirage, 1479 in Palm Desert, and 928 in Indio. . . just to name a few. In other words, there are currently far more homes for sale than there are buyers.
In the past four years the existing home sales have fallen in the Coachella Valley. In 2011, when the volume of existing homes selling was at the peak, 7763 homes sold. In 2012, 7453. In 2013 6,997. And last year, in 2014 the existing home sales were down to 6,213 homes. That coupled with the lack of water to support the existing homes, again begs the question: why are they building more?
The Desert Sun, the best investigative reporting in Coachella Valley, reports that tracts of new construction that have fewer than 500 homes are not required to seek approval to determine if there is an adequate water supply to support these new homes. For new developments that exceed 500 homes, developers are required to show that there is sufficient water supply for the following 20 years. Developers get around this requirement by building tracts of 50 to 100 homes for each project.
For tracts of 500 homes or more, water agencies do not limit the amount of water a project can use per structure or per person, but they do set construction guidelines based on average water use. The Coachella Valley Water District asks developers to plan for houses to use 720 gallons per day per household.
That’s about 225 gallons per capita, on par with the region’s current average usage and well above California’s per capita average of 111 gallons per day.
The Desert Sun reports that so far the Coachella Valley Water Districts have not turned down a single application for a new development. Jeff Morgan, the Chairman of the local Sierra Club has some genuine concerns. One of the largest proposed developments, La Entrada, would include 7,800 homes plus commercial buildings, schools and parks on 2,200 acres and will cost in excess of $1 billion.
The Desert Sun interviews Morgan where he voices some of his concerns:
Anyone who applies will get a permit and will also get a ‘will-serve’ letter from the water district. Where are they going to get water for another 250,000 people? I have no idea.
There are some proposed developments that are just so bad out there that it’s beyond comprehension that they could move forward, you know, they’re so egregious in regards to all kinds of things, including water. They just shouldn’t be built.
Morgan also addresses the hypocrisy of the fact that so many existing residents and businesses have adhered to mandatory reductions in their water usage so much that there just isn’t anywhere else that they can reduce.
You can’t ask people, some who are already very conservative in their water uses, to cut back when you’re allowing new developments of bigger and better houses all the time to take more and more water. The water districts need to say we don’t have enough water available and until we get some, you’re going to have to wait.
Developers argue that they are not part of the problem, rather that they are part of the solution, because–as they say–newer homes are more efficient and consume less water. What they aren’t talking about is that a large percentage of homes don’t house full-time residents. Many homes are second homes and often serve as vacation rentals. These vacation rentals, in order to get top dollar, must be in pristine condition–including the swimming pools and landscaping–at all times.
The Coachella Valley Water District seems to be asleep at the wheel. Or, they have some sort of personal interest in seeing the valley expand with new construction. Here’s a little bit about the five elected members of the Board:
G. Patrick O’Dowd, Division 1: Elected to a four-year term on the board in 2014. Earned a bachelor’s degree in Construction from Louisiana State University, and has an extensive background in business and finance, real estate development and media. After moving to the Coachella Valley in 1996, he worked locally in real estate development and sales. Also served on numerous boards including the Indio Water Authority and the Indio Planning Commission. Licensed California real estate agent. [Source]
Ed Pack, Division 2: Elected to a four-year term on the board in 2012. He is a retired prevention officer with the City of Hesperia Fire Department and has a college degree in Fire Science. A resident of that High Desert community for more than 30 years, Ed was elected to two terms on its city council, which governs Hesperia’s own water department. Also served on the Victor Valley Wastewater and Mojave County Air Quality joint powers authority committees. [Source]
John Powell, Jr., Division 3: First served on the board through an appointed term from 1998 to 2000. Elected to four-year terms in 2010 and 2014. President and CEO of Peter Rabbit Farms, his family’s Coachella-based business, which he joined following graduation from Stanford University. John is a trustee representing California on the governing board of the Colorado River Water Users Association and is a former director and past chairman of the Western Growers Association. [Source]
Peter Nelson, Division 4: Graduate of California State University, Fresno with a degree in Agricultural Business. Member of the Coachella Valley Water District Board of Directors since 2000. Six years as President, four as Vice President. Served on the Salton Sea Authority from 2000 to 2014. Currently serves on the Colorado River Board, and the California Farm Water Coalition. He also served on the California Desert Grape Administrative Committee, a federal marketing order, from 2008-2012, and for 6 years with the Coachella Valley Resource Conservation District. Grower of citrus, grapes and dates in the Coachella Valley, and has been involved in growing activities in the Palo Verde and Imperial valleys and Borrego Springs. [Source]
Cástulo R. Estrada, Division Five: Elected to a four-year term on the board in 2014. Engineer-in-Training with the City of Coachella, working toward obtaining his Professional Engineer’s (PE) license. Native of the Eastern Coachella Valley, a 2006 graduate of Coachella Valley High School, has a civil engineering degree from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. Certified by the state Department of Health as a Water Treatment Operator Grade T2 and Water Distribution Operator Grade D2. Cástulo is a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, San Bernardino and Riverside Counties Branch, member of the California Water Environment Association, Colorado River Basin Section. [Source]
Three of the five members of the board personally benefit financially from growing the Coachella Valley when it is clearly not in the best interest of the environment or the existing residents.
WATCH a tour of planned development:
Featured Image via Twitter/The Desert Sun.