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Pleasanton (CA) Develops Water Principles for Regional Sustainability

By Pleasanton (CA) Mayor Jennifer Hosterman
November 6, 2006

As a member of the Local Government Commission (LGC), a nonprofit organization comprised of local elected and appointed officials dedicated to helping communities address problems and maximize their civic, environmental and economic resources, I was privileged to work with a special advisory committee tasked to identify economically and politically viable options to sustain local water resources.

The committee was comprised of a blue-ribbon panel of experts. Their work resulted in the “Ahwahnee Water Principles” - a blueprint for sustainable land-use practices that, when implemented, can improve the reliability and quality of water resources and reduce some of the financial liabilities that new development places on local government. These “Principles” can help cities and counties become good stewards of local/regional water resources. If followed, they can minimize the development and redevelopment risk and impacts on stormwater runoff, ground and surface water contamination, and flooding.

Pleasanton experiences the same water supply and water quality problems that many California communities experience. The 37 million residents in the state need adequate, reliable and affordable water resources now and in the future. The vibrant California economy also creates competition for water supplies for a variety of uses. Responsibility for balancing water use and management is increasingly borne by local government. State laws dating to 2001, (referred to as the “Show Me the Water” laws) require that local approval of large new residential or commercial projects be contingent on verification from local water agencies that a sufficient water supply exists to sustain the projected growth. It should be noted that some California communities have experienced a loss of water resources, and subsequently, they have experienced a loss of population. This “loss-loss” scenario presents formidable economic challenges for these communities.

The stress caused by recent climate change conditions that have reduced snow pack and historically relied on water supplies in combination with the Show Me the Water laws led the LGC to a realization that there is a need for more careful planning about local and regional water management. One of the first planning frameworks identified by the special advisory committee was to think in terms of the watershed rather than just the local community jurisdiction. All land, developed or not, is part of a watershed. Watersheds have natural rather than political boundaries; and they are the source of all of our water, and that supply must adequately maintain our forests, agriculture, fisheries, commerce and industry, as well as provide for the public. California watersheds are prone to drought (three major droughts occurred in the last 75 years: 1929-34, 1976-77, 1987-92). Water resources in California are both limited and unpredictable. The Ahwahnee Water Principles represent our best thinking on “smart growth” approaches where water supplies are unpredictable. They also are guided by a strong consideration of burdens on taxpayers and local budgets. There are nine Community Principles, and five Implementation Principles. These 14 principles can be grouped into four categories, and they are briefly described, as follows:

Growing in a water-wise manner: (1) community design should be compact, mixed use, walkable and transit oriented to minimize auto generated urban runoff and maximize rainfall infiltration; and (2) identify, preserve and restore wetlands, floodplains, recharge zones, riparian areas, open space and native habitats to enhance flood protection, improve water quality, groundwater recharge and long-term water resources sustainability.

Water-friendly site design: (3) existing land features such as creek beds and ponds, as well as constructed areas including athletic fields and cisterns should be incorporated into the design of the urban landscape to decrease flooding and increase groundwater recharge; (4) all landscaping should consider choice of plants and soil preparation and irrigation systems to reduce water demand and retain runoff; and (5) permeable paving should replace impervious surfaces such as driveways and parking lots to increase groundwater recharge.

Stretching our water supplies: (6) “dual plumbing” can be installed to reuse graywater from showers, sinks and washers for landscape irrigation; (7) local codes can require purple pipes in new construction to anticipate future availability of recycled water for outside irrigation purposes; (8) new construction and remodeled residential and business building should be designed to incorporate water efficient toilets, appliances and industrial equipment; and (9) communities should consider groundwater treatment and brackish water desalination to drought-proof water supplies.

Implementation principles: (10) consistent with the Show Me the Water laws, water supply agencies should be consulted early in the land use decision-making process regarding growth and demographics, and technology choice; (11) all public organizations in a watershed should collaborate to identify and take advantage of the benefits and synergies that can be derived from water resource planning at the watershed level; (12) integrated, multi-benefit development proposals should be identified and implemented before less integrated proposals are accepted; (13) a proactive planning process with well designed public participation and access to information should be required for any proposal so that the community can achieve shared goals; and (14) plans, programs, projects and policies should be monitored and evaluated to determine if the expected results are achieved and to improve future practices.

These principles were identified and by the LGC’s special advisory committee over a two year period of collaborative research and many group meetings. They provide very practical guidelines for California communities as well as communities in other states. As the population of the United States reaches 300 million people this year, and as the economy grows to provide the standard of living Americans are accustomed to, we need to be mindful that sustainable communities need both adequate and affordable water supplies to sustain our quality of life. A combination of forward-thinking planning and a healthy respect for our environment and what it is capable of providing are critical to the survival of our communities.

The Ahwahnee Water Principles are articulated in greater detail in The Ahwahnee Water Principles - A Blueprint for Regional Sustainability, Local Government Commission, and can be viewed at