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Builders Told to Tout Their Role in Water Conservation : Drought: Their message is that industry is working to conserve supplies in new projects through landscaping and sophisticated irrigation techniques, and that a halt to construction would create an economic disaster.

March 09, 1991|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COSTA MESA — Orange County builders need to tout the industry's water-conservation efforts and clarify the role that new construction plays in overall water usage or risk becoming a victim of tougher water-rationing regulations stemming from the five-year statewide drought, industry officials said Friday.

Local builders are concerned about rising anti-growth sentiment and the public perception that new construction is soaking up water supplies that otherwise could help relieve the effects of the drought.

Lake Elsinore in Riverside County has just imposed a moratorium on new construction. Builders elsewhere worry that other local governments will follow suit.

Water management officials said they don't expect a wholesale clampdown on building but suggested that the construction industry has failed to persuade people that construction and the resulting new homes and businesses don't consume a critical share of the water supply.

"Only 7% of the water consumed in California is used by people," said Peer Swan, president of the Irvine Ranch Water District, which serves about 20% of the county. He said that 55% of the state's water supply flows into the ocean each year because of fish and wildlife preservation requirements. Agriculture consumes the rest, Swan said.

In Southern California, a lot of the most visibly consumed water--used to irrigate golf courses, campuses, parks and greenbelts--is recycled water that is unsuitable for human consumption, he said.

And almost two-thirds of the state's population growth--about 500,000 people a year in Southern California--comes from natural increases rather than immigration from other areas, said Jack Foley of the Moulton Niguel Water District.

"Even if all those people stay at home" and live with their parents when they grow up, they still will use water, Foley said.

Builders must spread the message that the industry is working to conserve water in new projects through drought-tolerant landscaping and sophisticated irrigation techniques and that a halt to construction would create an economic disaster, some speakers said.

Severe limits on new construction would throw tens of thousands of people out of work in an already-weakened industry that employs about 270,000 people, industry officials say. In addition, thousands of retail and service jobs would be affected.

"I'd rather share water with a new homeowner than face that," said Ken Willis of the Building Industry Assn. of Southern California. "We would not be talking about a minor recession any more; it would be 1930 again."

The industry wasted an opportunity during the last severe statewide drought that ended in the late 1970s by dropping demands that local officials continue pushing for completion of the much-delayed State Water Project, Swan said.

Swan was referring to project, designed to bring water from Northern California rivers into the parched Southland.

Controversies over cost and protection of fish and wildlife habitats have blocked the project for two decades.

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