Changing Planet

No Water, No Growth: Are Water-Neutral Growth Policies the key to Building Sustainable Communities?

By Mary Ann Dickinson

We’re accustomed to waiting in lines for a football game, to buy movie tickets or perhaps to get a seat in the most coveted professor’s class. But what if we had to wait in line to move? What if we had to be granted access to a city where we found a great new job or the family dream home we always wanted?

This idea isn’t so far-fetched; in some places, it’s already an unfortunate reality. In the seaside village of Cambria, California, 666 families and individuals are currently waiting for permission to move into their single family homes. Many have been on the wait list for upwards of 20 years. As recently as this summer, the San Diego Union-Tribune was fielding letters suggesting that the city close its doors to new residents.

Why have communities resorted to such extreme measures? The answer is simpler than you may think: they don’t have sufficient water supplies to hook up to new homes and facilities. Planners and decision-makers are increasingly challenged with the task of accommodating new water customers with existing and possibly limited water resources. This tension can also place limits on overall economic growth, deterring businesses from investing or expanding operations that can create jobs and bring opportunity to cities.

Water is the lifeblood of our communities. Although we may not recognize it when we turn on our faucets now, it will become clear how valuable and limited water is as more communities must consider if — and how — they can absorb the thousands and even millions more residents coming their way. In drought-gripped states like California, which anticipates welcoming another 12 million people before 2050, this challenge is already here.

But we don’t need to part with the ideals that propel us to seek out better lives and fresh starts in new places. Instead, policies that bridge planning activities and stewardship of water resources can put communities on a path to sustainable growth and allow needed economic development.


A row of a new townhouses in Richmond, British Columbia
A row of a new townhouses in Richmond, British Columbia


In our new paper, Water Offset Policies for Water-Neutral Community Growth, we take a look at where policies have been implemented to mitigate this specific tension between water and growth – and explore what it will take to make this type of policy the norm. While only 13 communities have implemented such policies to date, the review demonstrates that there is great opportunity to make this a standard planning practice.

In most cases, these policies were structured as water demand offset programs. Communities worked to “offset” the projected water demand of new development with water efficiency measures to create a neutral impact on overall water use. The new water use might be offset through both on-site water efficiency measures for the new development – such as recycling or green infrastructure – and off-site efficiency measures, like the replacement of inefficient toilets in older parts of the community.

For example, the City of Morro Bay, California requires building projects to offset the projected new water use through retrofits ranging from irrigation equipment to high-efficiency toilets, which the developers must find and complete. However, only half of the savings of each measure may be credited to the new development project, making the offset ratio 2:1 rather than 1:1. This is often done in stressed water basins to ensure that the amount saved is sufficient to help restore or protect water resources. In Massachusetts and New Mexico, planning entities have opted to construct “water banks”, or systems of accounting and paying for measures that offset or mitigate water loss. In Santa Fe, New Mexico, for example, the water bank holds consumptive use water rights, water credits, and water conservation credits that may be negotiated and transferred between developers and water rights holders. In each case, these programs help enable new construction that likely would have been prohibited due to supply constraints while also provided funding for water efficiency measures.

So why haven’t more communities pursued programs like these?

One reason is that these programs are complex to build from a technical perspective and often difficult to administer in a practical and sustainable way. Not only do we lack a consistent and industry-approved methodology for calculating the offsets – or how much water a specific action will save – but like all pieces of policy, there must also be mechanisms to verify that efficiency measures have been implemented and that the water-use reductions are permanent. Finally, the land use planning and water resources planning entities within a city’s service area must work hand in hand – along with developers, planning and zoning commissions, and other stakeholder groups. In many places, these entities may be completely disconnected and have diverse or even conflicting objectives.

That’s why AWE has partnered with the Environmental Law Institute and River Network to launch Net Blue – an initiative that aims to provide a practical path to sustainable community growth. The project will produce a toolbox of ordinance components, developed in concert with water resources, land use planning and legal experts, which cities can use to create and tailor a water demand offset approach that meets their needs. The project will also preview the ordinances in communities in different regions throughout North America to develop the components and to ensure that it is adaptable in communities with diverse political climates, legal frameworks and environmental challenges.

Some cities are already rising to the challenge and taking steps to link new development with measures and financial incentives that can boost existing supplies. San Francisco’s Public Utility Commission (SFPUC) has begun paying up to $500,000 to developers who will implement systems for on-site treatment and use of non-potable water in order to bolster overall supply reliability for the city.

The examples we uncovered demonstrate that cities can find a better balance between finite water resources and the boundless desire to grow – and create a story that doesn’t end with a waiting list or turning away business. We need to apply new thinking to traditional land use and planning approaches, and devise new strategies that prioritize building in ways that avoids undue strain on limited resources. This effort must also entail an inclusive discussion that creates links between diverse groups around a common goal of thriving communities. We hope our Net Blue Project will further that discussion and make sustainable growth an easier, more practical path.

Mary Ann Dickinson is the President and CEO of the Alliance for Water Efficiency, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the efficient and sustainable use of water in the United States and Canada.  Based in Chicago, the Alliance works with nearly 400 water utilities, water conservation professionals in business and industry, planners, regulators, and consumers. In 2014, the Alliance won the U.S. Water Prize in the non-profit category for its work.

The Alliance for Water Efficiency (AWE) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the efficient and sustainable use of water in North America. Working with water suppliers, business and industry, regulatory and advocacy organizations, AWE delivers innovative tools and training to encourage cost-effective water conservation programs, cutting-edge research, and policy options necessary for a sustainable water future.  AWE also helps water utilities design water rates to promote efficient water use while also supporting adequate revenue collection for the utility. For more information, visit our website, like us on Facebook, join our discussion on LinkedIn and follow us on Twitter @A4WE.
  • Richard Hawley

    The issue of water and growth as reported by Mary Ann Dickinson is oversimplified. While water is an important factor to consider many other issues must be part of smart growth. Carrying capacity of roads and highways, infrastructure like aging sewer plants, water pipelines, schools, air quality, affordable housing and, of course, the impact of human expansion on the environment. Without considering the total picture of a community we make the same mistakes concerning growth over and over.

  • Mary Webb

    Cambria also has 2:1 retrofit on resale policies and the local district finally prohibited outdoor landscape watering last year which saved the community 40% of water. The wait list is for people who don’t want to buy a home – they are buying (or inherited) inexpensive ($10,000 to $100,000) lots because the lots do not have water service at that location. If anyone wants to live here they can buy a home here with water and pay $200,000 and up like we all did. 30% of people on the wait list already live here – they are speculating on the lots in order to make a profit. There are also an unlimited number of commercial wait list positions – don’t forget about those – they will use a ton of water to serve tourism while the residents suffer.

  • Alliance for Water Efficiency

    Richard: I agree that all land use issues are complicated, and we don’t mean in this article to belittle them. Water is just one factor in analyzing the carrying capacity of growth. But where water scarcity is a serious constraint, we think there are solutions. Certainly the community must consider all factors in approving any development. Our proposed voluntary overlay ordinance would be only one tool in the land use toolbox.

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