As California struggles to come to terms with a historic drought, builders there face an uncertain future. Historically, the state’s growing population is one reason why California uses more water than it used to; so, in principle, each new house represents a new water consumer. In a few municipalities, that view has led some to call for a moratorium on new construction.

New vs. existing. Builders counter that given new, strict codes and advanced plumbing technology, new homes are far more sparing of water resources than the state’s existing legacy homes. Instead of limiting new construction, they say, the state should focus on retrofitting existing houses with water-conserving equipment. Restricting the supply of housing, they argue, won’t help with the water shortage, but will only increase home prices and rents.

The Orange County Register picked up the debate in a recent story (see: “In the continuing drought, can Orange County keep building?” by Jeff Colllins). “On March 17, two of Orange County’s most urgent crises came head to head,” the paper reports. “The state Legislative Analyst’s Office called on construction companies and local officials to respond to a critical housing shortage by building an additional 100,000 houses and apartments a year in the state. That same day, the State Water Resources Control Board – responding to what could be a decades-long drought – set limits on the number of days Californians can water their yards and ordered restaurants and bars to serve water only upon request.”

Competing needs. “So the question is,” the paper asks, “can the competing needs for new housing and water conservation both be met? The short answer, say local water officials, developers and even some environmentalists, is a qualified ‘yes.’ Yes, that is, provided Orange County can increase water supplies, step up conservation another notch or two and change the types of homes being built.”

In a recent position paper, California Building Industry Association (CBIA) President Dave Cogdill stresses the state’s serious housing shortage. Writes Cogdill: “A March 2015 research analysis by the non-partisan California Legislative Analyst's Office outlines the serious impacts to California's hardworking families and the state economy due to the lack of new housing construction. According to the study, the median price of California home costs $440,000, two-and-a-half times the average national home price of $180,000; and the state's average rent is $1,240 per month, 50% higher than the rest of the country.”

Cogdill goes on: “With demand far outstripping supply and a current housing shortage, the study states that steep competition - particularly in coastal areas - drives up the cost of housing statewide. As a result, people are spending more of their income on high housing costs, increasing the supplemental poverty measure. The bottom line is California would need to build 100,000 units per year more than we are building today to seriously mitigate its problems with housing affordability.”

Effect of water-efficiency standards. New homes, Cogdill notes, use less water than existing homes: “Currently, new three-bedroom single-family homes with four occupants use an estimated 46,500 gallons of water per year in internal use - a 50% reduction from homes built in 1980.” Since new homes only represent only a tiny fraction of the state’s housing stock anyway, Cogdill recommends that policymakers focus instead on existing dwellings. Writes Cogdill: “As of January 2014, California has a total housing stock of 13,624,000 dwelling units and of that 9,153,400 (67%) were constructed prior to the adoption of water-conserving plumbing features. This means that 2 out of every 3 homes in California were built without complying with any water efficiency standards, and if existing homes were required to comply with most recent building and plumbing building standards, over 300 billion gallons of water could be saved or 920,665 acre feet of water. Moreover, indoor retrofits are inexpensive and would be widely accessible to a wide range of household incomes with government incentives: the average cost to upgrade existing housing with new water-efficient showers, fixtures and toilets would cost on average $1,500 or less per home.”

Landscape irrigation is one household water use that has fallen under scrutiny. Here too, California offers an opportunity: Residential “graywater,” water used in sinks and showers, could be routed into household irrigation systems instead of sent to sewage treatment plants. The Sonora Union Democrat carries an Associated Press story on that topic (see: “California's drought spurring water recycling at home,” by Ellen Knickmeyer).

“As mandatory conservation kicked in statewide this month, forcing many of California's 38 million people to face giving up on greenery, [graywater] recycling systems have become attractive options in new homes, right along with granite countertops,” the paper reports. “California Building Industry Association executive Robert Raymer rattles off the drought-conscious top builders that now routinely offer in-home water recycling.”

Until recently, codes prohibited the use of drainwater for irrigation — although millions of Californians reportedly ignored the rule and did it anyway. Recent rule changes have allowed the practice to come into the open. But it’s still tricky.

“In California, homeowners are now allowed to irrigate with untreated water straight from bathroom sinks, washing machines and bathtubs, as long as - among other requirements - the water lines run beneath soil or mulch, so as not to come in contact with people,” the Union Democrat reports. “That rules out using untreated gray water on lawns, which typically need above-ground spray heads or sprinklers.” It’s okay to water vegetables, but only if the water doesn’t actually contact the produce. And rules now let homeowners hook up their own systems to drain laundry water into that type of system, without a permit — a relatively easy and cheap DIY job.

Advanced automated systems can do more, but they cost more, the report notes — making graywater a business opportunity for capable contractors.

A deeper look. With the drought deepening, and showing no signs of abating any time soon, builders are pushing to stay in front of the issue and position their industry as part of the solution, not part of the problem. Builder magazine editor John McManus talked last week with CBIA President Cogdill, and posted a deeper look at the role of homebuilders in framing the policy issues. (See: “Drought and Doubt,” by John McManus, 6/19/15).

Says Cogdill: “This issue is custom made for folks that don't want any growth, so it's important and imperative that we as home builders and developers push back and state the facts. We're part of the solution, and we have a great story to tell about the quality of actor we are in this drama."