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Where will the water come from?

One common reason offered to resist building housing is that there is no water supply for that housing.  It’s worth just noting as a first point that while California (and the American West more broadly) has a big problem with water, housing is not a big part of that problem.  Depending whose estimates you trust, residential use takes less than 20% of the state’s water, and probably closer to 10%.  The big issue is figuring out how our agricultural sector can be more efficient, and how we can move and store more water, with less environmental and energy cost, and less evaporative loss.  (And while this is not particularly a city issue, Peninsula Clean Energy could potentially be a player in that last.  I’ve seen a proposal to build solar shade structures over aqueducts, which seemed like it might pencil out as financially and environmentally sound.)

 

 

Within the residential sector, over half of all use goes to lawns, which obviously become less of an issue, on a per-person basis, if more people are choosing apartments or condos (hopefully with beautiful green spaces like City Park and Junipero Serra Park nearby), or duplex / triplex / “missing middle” options.  We definitely should be offering generous grants for xeriscaping, the practice of replacing grass with plants that need less water, often those native to our region.

Redwood City published a study not long ago showing how actual measured water use in their city was comparing to estimates that water authorities had made for their long-term planning, some years back.  They showed that there were savings at every level, but the improvements for multi-family are the most impressive.

I’ve also talked with some water district officials about exploring the possibility of subsidizing recirculating pumps.  You install a pump under the sink farthest from your water heater, which turns on at the push of a button, and then pumps water from the hot side to the cold side, until the actual hot water arrives.  So you spend a little bit of electricity, to save a few gallons of water, each time you want hot water.  When you combine this with the increasing availability of rooftop and community solar power, this is obviously a good trade.  I installed one in my own home this summer.

Now, when we come to San Bruno specifically, we are in relatively good shape compared to most other cities in the region.  The history of how water rights are allocated throughout the entire American West is weird and complicated, but from what I’ve gathered from conversations with a couple boardmembers of BAWSCA, San Bruno has a deal where if we use under a certain amount of water, we accumulate credits, and we have kept under that limit for a very long time, so we have a lot of leeway relative to other cities to make claims on future supply.  (Of course, one reason folks in town may try to conserve is just seeing costs increase over the last decade, which is at least partly due to the one-time impact of the Baykeeper settlement.)

As long as the Bay Area as a whole has water, San Bruno’s going to have water, and we’re going to be fine on delivering that water to residences — we’ve been making good progress on installing new water and sewer pipes that have plenty of spare capacity to accommodate any plausible amount of growth over the next several decades.  That’s been slowed a bit by COVID in the last couple years, but while the schedule has slipped, the budget thus far has not — there was no need for new funds to be allocated from the capital budget this year.

So then the question becomes what happens at the margin when we choose whether to add local housing, or not.  If we build some apartments downtown, or up near Tanforan and the Bayhill offices, the vast majority of people that move into those are going to be either people that already lived in the Bay Area; or people who first made the decision to move here (for a job, or for family reasons), and then set about looking for a place to live.  If there are no affordable places on the Peninsula, chances are those folks are still going to move here.  Telling some new young engineer at YouTube that there's no place for them in San Bruno isn’t going to deter them from taking that job.  They’re just going to end up in far-flung suburbs or exurbs — which means they’re actually still in the same overall water market.  (Or, worse, they may bid up the price of our older housing stock, displacing somebody that works a local blue-collar job out to that exurb.)  So then we have people living in housing that uses more water, and commuting from hours away (and water gets used in the production of gasoline, or even electricity).

Simply stated, if you want to reduce water use in the Bay Area, you need to build more housing in San Francisco and in other job-rich towns along the Peninsula, especially where you can build it adjacent to transit (like BART, Caltrain, and the El Camino buses).

This brings us to the issue of jobs-housing balance.  As a region, we can’t keep adding jobs, without having housing for the people who are supposed to take those jobs.  The recent shift towards remote work may have bought us a little time, but it obviously hasn’t completely resolved the issue.  Rents have already bounced back upwards.  One city alone can’t fully address this problem, but we can work to rally our neighbors and lobby our state legislators, and we can at least make a contribution to improving things by casting a more skeptical eye toward office development, and favoring more mixed developments where housing — especially housing at mixed levels of size and affordability — gets included to balance things out.

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Auros Harman for San Bruno Council
District 4 2022 FPPC # 1449270
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