Friday, April 24, 2015

Water Conservation Thinking Updated

When the possibility of a drought-driven Petaluma construction moratorium was first broached, I responded strongly, supporting more stringent water conservation standards, but opposing the concept of an extended moratorium.

Listening to and participating in subsequent discussions has led me to believe that the moratorium aspect of the issue has been misunderstood by many.  With the City Council hearing on a possible moratorium now approaching, I want to share a clarification of my thinking.

But first, I want to explain why this subject matters to me as an urbanist.  Well-configured urbanism requires less water than drivable suburbia.  Much of the savings comes from the reduced irrigation of a rowhouse or an apartment compared to a single-family home.  But other factors also come into play.  To offer just one, most forms of energy production require water and drivable suburban uses more energy than walkable urban.  At the bottom line, urbanism is a good water conservation strategy.

But urbanist projects are hard to bring to the finish line.  Market and regulatory forces are often contrived against urbanism.  Despite the most diligent efforts of committed developers and consultants, urbanist projects are often fragile and prone to succumbing to hazards such as delayed adoption of a general plan or an extended economic malaise, obstacles that drivable suburban projects can more often survive.

Too many times over the past fifteen years, I’ve watched as well-conceived urbanist projects, projects that among other benefits would have reduced per capita water use, have stumbled and fallen when another hurdle was inserted between them and the finish line.

The spectre of a water conservation moratorium becoming the latest tripwire for water-conserving urbanism is too painful and too perverse to tolerate.  So I firmly oppose an extended water moratorium.

With the background, let me clarify my three key point positions regarding new water conservation standards.

Stronger water conservation standards: Strongly in favor.  The drought, which many predicted with uncomfortable accuracy, is edging into historical territory.  To not respond would be a benighted public policy.

Even those who continue as climate change skeptics should now see the logic of more stringent water conservation standards.  Even if someone argues that the drought is 95 percent certain to be nothing more than a normal climate cycle, would the person get behind the wheel of a car with a 5 percent chance of brake failure?  Common sense requires being proactively responsive to even low probability events if the implications would be dire.  And personally I put the odds of the drought being the result of anthropogenic climate change at well above 5 percent.

Long-term moratorium: Absolutely not.  We can’t risk the absurdity of losing another generation of water-conserving urbanism to the hardship of a long moratorium.

Short-term moratorium: This is the point where I think the conversation has gotten off-track.  A two-year moratorium and a 45-day moratorium serve very different purposes, to the point where it’s shame that the word moratorium is applied to both.

A two-year moratorium is a “let’s wait until things to get better” moratorium.  (A strategy that I don’t think would serve any purpose for the ongoing drought.)  But a 45-day moratorium is usually a “fresh start” moratorium.

It’s well established that the adoption of new rules setting higher development standards often result in a flood of new applications in the days before the new rules go into effect.

This isn’t unethical behavior by developers, any more than it’s unethical for consumers to stock up on stuff in the days before a price increase.  Both are simply examples of rational financial decisions.

But that doesn’t mean that the public good is served by having a flood of applications under rules that are about to be supplanted for good reason.

A short moratorium is a way of ensuring that all new applications are made under new standards.  It puts a hold on all applications until the new rules are officially adopted and effective.

I don’t have an opinion about whether a 45-day moratorium would be appropriate in the current Petaluma circumstances.   Without knowing the extent of the new water conservation policies that may be adopted by the Council, I can’t judge the need for a short “fresh start” moratorium.

But I do fear that an apparent conflation of the two moratorium concepts may result in pressure against a reasonable and justified short-term moratorium, which would in turn allow too many projects to proceed under soon-to-be superseded water conservation rules.

I’m fine with the City Council making a rational decision about the need for a 45-day moratorium as long as a more extended moratorium stays far off the table.

I’m disappointed that I won’t be able to attend the April 27 meeting.  But I’ll be following the results eagerly, hoping for good things for both water conservation and urbanism.

In my next post, I’ll touch upon springtime, revisiting some venues and ideas that become more relevant as spring blossoms.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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