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Harsh California Water Laws, but Lax Enforcement

California likes to brag it has some of the toughest laws on the books when it comes to making sure its people will not run out of water. But critics say the laws are poorly enforced, and the whole sy

Harsh California Water Laws, but Lax Enforcement

(Photo: Workers frame up houses in a new development in  Rancho Cucamanga, California. David McNew/Getty Images .)

California likes to brag it has some of the toughest laws on the books when it comes to making sure its people will not run out of water. But critics say the laws are poorly enforced, and the whole system is built on hope and trust. Here’s more with reporter Amita Sharma.


More than 82,000 homes, condos and apartments have sprouted up across San Diego County over the past five years. And though the housing boom is on the wane, dreams of expansion continue --  whether it’s condo construction in downtown San Diego or plans for new homes in East County.

Developer Barratt Homes wants to turn hundreds of acres of rural, dusty land in Santee into Fanita Ranch , with 1,400 houses, a fire station, parks and a school. For the people who would move here, a dream of homeownership realized. But a nightmare if it turns out there’s not enough water to drink and bathe. And water expert Suzanne Michel says that could become a hard, dry reality. 

Michel: We don’t even know if there is enough water for us right now that we’re going to be putting in anywhere from 1300 to 1400 additional homes with very high water usage.


Calif. Water Law SB-221

•Requires water suppliers, land use planners and developers to consider water supply at the tentative map stage of the land use planning process.

•Tentative maps must include a requirement that sufficient water supplies will be available for 20 years.

•The law applies to proposed residential subdivisions of more than 500 dwelling units.

•The public water system that will serve the subdivision must provide written verification of its ability to provide sufficient water supplies, such as the water system’s most recently adopted urban water management plan or water assessment.

  • California law says cities have to show there will be sufficient water before they let developers build any project of more than 500 homes. That’s supposed to prevent runaway development in a state where water supply is often in question. There’s just one problem: No one from the state is checking that the water cities and counties say will be there, will actually be there.

    Santee city officials refused to speak with us on camera. But they issued a written statement affirming there is sufficient water to serve Fanita Ranch if the city approves it. 

    McIntyre: I would say that’s relying on paper water because it assumes that past supplies will meet the needs of new demand.

    Mindy McIntyre is a water program manager with the Planning and Conservation League in Sacramento .

    McIntyre: So the Colorado River and the state water project will be able to meet all the needs of the future. That simply isn’t true.

    So, if the state doesn’t check to make sure cities and water agencies’ projections are verifiable, whose job is it? It turns out, it’s your job. It’s left up to citizens to try to determine whether the complex projections are true.

    We checked with the City of San Diego to see in the past seven years how many times has the water supply estimate for housing projects been challenged. The answer: Not even once.

    Last month, the city rebuffed a request from City Attorney Mike Aguirre. He wanted to halt new development until a judge issues a final ruling on how much water the city will get from the state delta. Instead, the city council unanimously approved 560 new condos across from University Towne Center.

    Barrett: From what I can tell, no one has really gotten to the point where they’re saying no more growth.

    That’s Jim Barrett, head of the City of San Diego’s Water Department .

    Barrett: There is water out there. It will be more expensive than that we’re currently paying, but there is water there to be had.

    Barrett argues it’s worth paying more to fulfill the dreams of the next generation. 

    Barrett: We need to make sure that we’re responsive to their needs ... the fact that they may want to have a house to live in when they grow up. Two-thirds of the growth in this region is from new births from people who are already here. We need to protect these folks.

    We need to make sure that the information and the science is supporting our hopes and our dreams before we develop and spend millions of dollars and invest people’s life savings into a house before we make those decisions we need to make sure the water will be there.