Stockton in many ways can be considered a model city for what smart growth advocates consider sprawl —single-family residential development extending far from the city core, replacing agricultural land and open space with rooftops and pavement. It’s the type of development that can stretch municipal resources, foster reliance on automobiles and increase vehicle emissions. But what many don’t realize is that sprawl can also exacerbate the negative effects of a drought, which is no small-matter in the rain-starved Central Valley.
Recent reports from Smart Growth America (“Paving Our Way to Water Shortages: How Sprawl Aggravates the Effects of Drought”) and Western Resource Advocates (“A Comparative Study of Urban Water Use Across the Southwest”) argue that the type of growth that’s been a hallmark of the Central Valley the past few decades leads to cities that consume far more water than is sustainable.
The studies found that urban growth patterns with a relatively low density of units per acre — especially those featuring primarily single-family houses — use more water than higher-density, mixed-use plans. They also indicate that the more pavement used for a development, such as for parking lots at a sprawling strip mall, the less rain recharges groundwater stores. These impervious surfaces carry stormwater to drains and ultimately into waterways where it can’t be used for consumption, instead of allowing water to soak back into the ground to be extracted by wells.
The findings, while directly related to other regions, are applicable to Stockton. Climate models for the coming century generally predict dwindling snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the primary source of drinking and agricultural water for Stockton and California as a whole. That means the current worst-in-a-century drought could become common. Cities such as Stockton, which is predicted by the general plan to grow significantly from its current size of 300,000 during the next 20 years, will have to do with less.
Don’t be mistaken — the sprawling development patterns of Stockton and cities up and down the state aren’t wholly to blame for this year’s drought. The lion’s share of California’s drought should be attributed to record low rainfall in 2014 and an antiquated water rights system.
(It’s also true that agriculture consumes more water than urban users, so some might argue San Joaquin County would become more water efficient the more local farmland is turned to houses. It’s a noxious viewpoint considering our immediate region relies economically on ag production and doesn’t have to import its farm water like the Central Valley’s west side, but it’s an argument nonetheless.)
But the point remains that with a growing population and a water supply that will at best stay the same, planners and developers would be Coke-bottle-glasses shortsighted to not take every chance to make cities more efficient when it comes to water.
What can be done to make more efficient use of the water we do have? Experts recommend a number of strategies.
“…Minimizing (housing) lot sizes, applying high-density mixed-use developments, maximizing infill development and utilizing water-efficient landscape designs and watering practices,” can all help mitigate the negative effects of drought and save water in the long run, according to Western Resources Advocates.
Of course, that means changing growth-as-usual. And as Central Valley residents know, change can be difficult.
Developers continue to push lower-density growth on Stockton’s fringes over infill. During meetings discussing San Joaquin County’s future growth and sustainability, industry representatives called a target of 8.6 units per acre “unrealistic,” and favored a 7.1-unit-per-acre threshold.
As various developers and spokespeople have told me over the past decade, single-family homes on larger lots (meaning overall lower density) are in highest demand and tend to sell fastest. What sometimes goes unmentioned is that they also happen to be the type of project that yields the highest return on investment. Not to mention that a lack of other viable options in the local housing market forces many who would favor walkable, urban-type neighborhoods to settle for a suburban setting.
It’s true that many people want green lawns, lush gardens and swimming pools on large lots. Not everyone will choose to live in even a well-appointed downtown, or rip out their lawn and install mulch and drip lines like one of my neighbors did this past summer.
But at a certain point, there needs to be a collective realization that we do not live in a region with unlimited resources. Indeed, these resources are already being strained, and this year’s drought could be a sign of drier seasons to come.
That’s where Stockton’s planners can step up.
The City Council’s Feb. 25 decision to halt the Bear Creek East subdivision while the general plan and the growth it governs are made more environmentally responsible is a signal that resource constraints are being seriously considered by City Hall. Planners must guard against the temptation to listen solely to developers when crafting new growth guidelines and focus on a future that’s more sustainable than the status quo.
Sprawl’s effect on water use is only one factor on a long list arguing for changes that place even more emphasis on mixed-use, infill development.