Water, Water—Nowhere?

Whether in the dry Southwest or hurricane-prone coastal areas along the Atlantic Seaboard, developers need to incorporate water strategies into their plans.

New York—Whether in the dry Southwest or hurricane-prone coastal areas along the Atlantic Seaboard, developers need to incorporate water strategies into their plans. That message flowed through loud and clear during a panel titled “Water: Too Much, Too Little” at the Urban Land Institute’s Fall Meeting in New York City in late October.

The greater New York City metro area is one place more focused on determining how best to protect development along the coast to prevent damage like that sustained two years ago, during Hurricane Sandy, as Gerard Romski, project executive & general counsel for the oceanfront community Arverne by the Sea in Rockaway Beach, N.Y., discussed. He believes that New York’s new mayor, Bill DeBlasio, is directing the right types of planning and implementation to allow for continued coastal development.

But freshwater supplies pose a looming problem for the U.S. as a whole—and in fact the world. While more arid locations such as those in the Southwest and West, have been layering initiatives to prevent water shortages, even less constrained areas need to start taking preventive steps as populations continue to grow. “By 2100, we will have either figured out a way to grow and not deplete our natural resources or we will have begun to collapse,” predicted Laura Huffman, Texas state director for the Nature Conservancy.

While water may in theory be a policy problem, real estate developers can and should take an active role as they site and plan their projects. In fact, what for some may be surprising circumstances may make this critical: In Texas, for instance, groundwater is considered a property right while surface water is municipal, so a joint approach to managing and conserving it is necessary, according to Huffman.

Indeed, more and more, developers need to show water capacity in order to obtain approval to proceed, she said, and they need to measure that more broadly. “Water is no longer a local issue,” she noted.

In Texas, for instance, it is being addressed on a local and state level, with the realization that water may well flow through several cities—and treatment facilities—before it reaches your property. And Arizona, several states down the Colorado River, cut a deal with Colorado and Utah in order to guarantee enough water will flow through to meet its needs, according to Steven Betts, president of Chanen Development Co.

States like Arizona and New Mexico were long ago forced to take such measures, along with others like catching and storing seasonal surface water and reducing per capita consumption, in order to obtain congressional funding to pursue new conservation projects, which can be expensive. Some other cities and states are more recently finding success with measures that also include green common areas that slow the flow of storm water so it doesn’t overwhelm the drainage system, limiting agriculture—a big water user—and other initiatives, noted moderator John McIlwain, senior resident fellow & the J. Ronald Terwilliger Chair for Housing at ULI. Among them, the panelists praised Philadelphia for combining green space with water-conservation pipes and San Antonio for its recent reduction in consumption to 150 gallons per person per year. Albuquerque has also cut its consumption to 150 gallons per person from 250, with plans to further reduce it to 130 using “pretty aggressive incentives,” according to an audience member.

On the other hand, voluntary water control measures, like those issued to California residents, don’t work, the panelists affirmed. Huffman suggested combining “carrots and sticks,” including rate structures, although educating the public also helps impose a sense of responsibility.

“We’re at a very critical time for all natural resources, especially water,” Huffman concluded.

“We just have to be a lot smarter in the way we use water and then we’ll be OK,” Betts said.