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In-Depth: California drought could make housing crisis worse

Experts say cities need to diversify water sources
Posted at 5:59 AM, Jul 12, 2021

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - As California enters another period of drought, experts say the dry spell could make an already difficult housing market even worse.

"This is something that we will see in the future, it's part of our climate," says Dr. Julie Kalansky, a Climate Scientist with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. "It's part of the Mediterranean climate. It's part of California. So we will continue to have these droughts."

Drought caused water issues as recently as 2015. During that dry spell, then-Gov. Jerry Brown instituted a 25% cut in water usage. People turned off their sprinklers, replaced their lawns with artificial grass, and began using more efficient, low-flow shower heads, toilets and faucets.

This month, Gov. Gavin Newsom asked Californians to cut their own water usage by 15%, although he did not make it mandatory.

Stricter restrictions could cause problems in the housing market.

Dr. Tom Corringham, a Research Economist from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, says coastal areas may not see the drought impact housing. But, he says rural and inland communities that depend on groundwater will be a different story.

"In some parts of the state it is becoming increasingly difficult to get hookups for water in certain communities because of the drought conditions," he says.

A drought-related drop in new housing developments would cut into years of improvement when it comes to building homes in San Diego.

Data from the Real Estate Research Council of Southern California shows new home construction has gone up significantly since the recession (see chart above).

During the last drought, as restrictions went in place, nearly 10,000 homes were built in San Diego County in both 2015 and 2016.

In 2020, that number was just under 9,500.

While those numbers are high, experts say they're just a drop in the bucket compared to what the area needs to keep pace with demand. Some housing experts say about 20,000 homes need to be built in San Diego every year.

Building more houses requires more water.

"It's a serious problem," says Dr. Norm Miller, a Real Estate Professor at USD. "But it's solvable."

Miller believes San Diego already has enough water to build that many new homes. But he thinks the State and Federal Governments need to make housing a priority over other water users, like agriculture.

Miller believes the state should reallocate water away from farming, especially from growing produce that uses a lot of water, like rice and almond trees.

"I don't really buy into the fact that we have a water shortage," Dr. Miller says. "We have a political problem."

Miller also says California can diversify its water sources to be more drought tolerant.

San Diego is on the cutting edge of doing that. The region already has desalination plants in Carlsbad and Chula Vista, pulling water from the ocean.

Several cities in San Diego County have also started "Pure Water" programs, where used water is recycled into potable "grey" water.

"I think San Diego has been thoughtful and proactive in what we have," says Dr. Kalansky. "Not just in terms of natural resources, but other new technologies that we can use to make ourselves more resilient."

Dr. Corringham adds that new homes could be built with less landscaping, or even drought tolerant yards that use the areas natural ecology as a guide.

"If you go and visit Arizona, for example, and you look at the front yards there, it's all desert plants," he says. "Somewhere like Southern California, it is basically a coastal desert ecosystem."

Doing all of that could make San Diego's housing market more drought resistant.

But the drought could still have an impact. Dry climates make wildfires more dangerous. That means any homes built in the wildland/urban interface areas at risk. Building in fire-prone areas could be restricted, and any homes that are built in those parts of the county would be expensive to insure.

Dr. Kalansky and Dr. Corringham also say prolonged drought is only one aspect of climate change that could impact the housing market.

As temperatures rise, it could get too hot to build inland or in desert areas. And as sea levels rise, homes along the coasts will be put in jeopardy.