Tamping Down on Water Use in Drought Stricken California

By Meg Wilcox, Senior Manger, Communications, Ceres

The Dawn Creek subdivision in Lancaster, 60 miles north of Los Angeles, looks like any other neighborhood scattered across California’s Antelope Valley. Its neatly arrayed modern homes blend into the arid landscape, sporting hues the colors of the desert—burnt umber, sienna and ecru.

KB Home's 2,537 square foot Double ZeroHouse at Dawn Creek in Lancaster, Calif. is the builder's first to achieve net-zero energy status and zero freshwater usage irrigation. Credit: KB Home
KB Home’s 2,537 square foot Double ZeroHouse at Dawn Creek in
Lancaster, Calif. is the builder’s first to achieve net-zero energy
status and zero freshwater usage irrigation. (Photograph by KB Home)

But Dawn Creek contains a home like no other in the country—a so-called Double ZeroHouse that is so highly energy and water efficient that it uses zero electricity from the grid and less than half the water of an average home.

Such a water-efficient house is key for this starkly beautiful scrubland at the western tip of the Mojave Desert. And it’s a promising model for other arid regions, especially as climate change impacts accelerate and water scarcity grows.

Unveiled by homebuilder giant KB Home in February, the Double ZeroHouse is emblematic of the type of water conserving innovations that are springing up in the Antelope Valley, where water has been a precious commodity since long before the drought now gripping California.

“Water has been a very important issue to us for a long time, and especially now we need adequate water supplies to recover from a tough recession and bring employment,” said Robert Neal, public works director at Lancaster, which is taking its own innovative steps to tighten the spigot, including partnering with companies like KB Home and Kaiser Permanente on construction of water efficient buildings.

California State Water Project Aqueduct, Antelope Valley, California.
(Photograph by Meg Wilcox)

Rainfall averages only six inches a year in Lancaster, a city of 158,000, and it gets most of its water from groundwater aquifers and the State Water Project (SWP), a system of reservoirs, aqueducts and pumping stations that bring water from wetter northern California to the thirsty south.

Both sources are under severe stress.

Rapid economic development and decades of over-pumping by large farms have resulted in a 200 foot drop in the water table and land subsidence of up to seven feet in Antelope Valley.  Over-pumping, in fact, led to a 2011 court ruling that set a safe yield of 110,000 acre-feet per year. Despite this, current withdrawals are estimated at 170,000 acre-feet per year, and groundwater use remains in litigation over a dispute between public water suppliers and farmers and other landowners.

The SWP provides about 60 percent of the city’s water supply, according to Neal. Earlier this year, however, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) announced that Lancaster and 28 other water districts would receive no water from the SWP in 2014—a first in the aqueduct’s 40-year history.

“The harsh weather leaves us little choice,” DWR Director Mark Cowin said at the time. “If we are to have any hope of coping with continued dry weather and balancing multiple needs, we must act now to preserve what water remains in our reservoirs.”

Water scarcity has not deterred KB Home, however, from building affordable, environmentally sustainable housing to bolster economic growth in the valley, which suffers from high unemployment. In fact, water scarcity has spurred its innovation.

“I’ve become very passionate about solving the water challenge,” said Tom DiPrima, executive vice president of Southern California Division at KB Home, at the Double ZeroHouse’s unveiling.  “We didn’t want to see this valley die, but we won’t see growth, and we won’t see the future if we don’t have water.”

The Double ZeroHouse’s signature feature is a grey water recycling system, which recycles water from sinks, showers and washing machines for outdoor use, eliminating the need to use potable water for irrigation. It’s the first ever use of grey water recycling in a home in the U.S. and a critical source of water savings given that outdoor water use accounts for 50 to 70 percent of the typical family’s water use in the valley, according to Neal.

The grey water system, combined with drought tolerant landscaping, water sense fixtures and real time monitoring add up to savings of roughly 150,000 gallons of water per year, or half an acre-foot, for a family of four.

Buoyed by KB Home’s success, Lancaster plans to require that all new homes be built with grey water systems. It’s already passed tighter building codes and ordinances regarding water efficient landscaping and water wasting that have helped the city decrease its water use by 15 percent since 2007, even as the population has grown.

A brand new wastewater recycling initiative, which yields 13,000 acre feet of non-potable water for dust control, construction projects and the city’s park, will help the city achieve deeper savings.

Kaiser Permanente, a healthcare provider building a 136,000 square foot campus on 13 acres in Lancaster, was able to tap into the city’s recycled wastewater for use in landscaping—and—as a first for both the company and the city— its toilets.

“When we learned that 66 percent of our water would go to landscaping and toilets, we knew it was the right thing to do,” said Patricia Reyes-Cappelli, Kaiser Permanente’s project director for the new facility, which is designed for Platinum-Level LEED certification.

“It has a good payback cycle,” she adds. “And all the signals we are getting is that water is going to be the number one scarce resource.”

But it wasn’t easy. Kaiser Permanente had to create two separate plumbing systems for the sinks and toilets, pay for a new pipeline to bring the reclaimed water to the facility, and commission a study of the wastewater reclamation facility’s capacity. The biggest hurdle was convincing Los Angeles County to allow them to use the wastewater in toilets, even though California law allows it.

Antelope Valley and its iconic Joshua tree. Photo Credit: Meg Wilcox
Antelope Valley and its iconic Joshua tree. (Photograph by Meg Wilcox)

These sorts of water conservation efforts are helping Lancaster cut its water use, but Neal credits the city’s foresight to bank water in more flush times with getting it through this difficult year with zero state water.

When the groundwater court case, now in its 13th year, is finally settled, Neal says he thinks limits will be placed on farmers’ withdrawals. Agriculture consumes 70 percent of the valley’s water, and while some large growers like Grimmway, a family-run organic carrot farm, and Tejon Ranch, have switched to drip, linear and pivot irrigation to reduce their water use, others still use flood irrigation. Neal says farmers with low value crops may opt to sell their water to the city in the future.

However the legal case is resolved, the City will undoubtedly remain on the forefront of water-saving innovation as climate change impacts likely worsen. Already it’s a solar pioneer, being the first ever to require solar installations on all new homes.

“The salvation of this planet, if it is not already too late, will be from the bottom up,” Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris said.

Meg Wilcox rejoined Ceres as a senior manager of Communications in January 2014, after a two-year hiatus as senior manager of Communications at Root Capital.  Meg first began working for Ceres’ communications team in 2008. She handles media relations and external communications projects, focusing especially on BICEP communications and climate and energy policy.

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Ceres is a sustainability nonprofit organization working with the most influential investors and companies to build leadership and drive solutions throughout the economy. Through powerful networks and advocacy, Ceres tackles the world’s biggest sustainability challenges, including climate change, water scarcity and pollution, and human rights abuses.