Drought, growth threaten water supply

The two major forces taxing our finite water supply are prolonged drought and unrestrained growth.

We know we can mitigate some of the devastating effects of drought with long overdue water conservation. But can we do anything about growth? Communities create and enthusiastically implement economic development policies that support and encourage growth. They do that in the time-honored (and seldom challenged) belief that growth benefits all of us all of the time.

If circumstances change and a community finds compelling reasons to question whether continued expansion is in the best interests of the majority of its citizens, can it voluntarily limit its growth rate?

In his book Better Not Bigger (1999, New Society Publishers), community consultant Eben Fodor lists the reasons communities in the United States frequently cite for intentionally slowing growth. The top five are:

Preservation of quality of life

Reduction in traffic congestion

Sewer capacity limitations

Water capacity limitations

Preservation of sensitive environmental areas.

Better Not Bigger presents a carefully researched analysis of how a community can exercise a significant degree of control over its growth rate, especially when a majority of its voters believe it is necessary to do so. (And perhaps eventually create a "sustainable community," one that is able to perpetuate itself indefinitely without ever exceeding the carrying capacity of its environment.)

Most people I've talked to about growth shrug their shoulders and say that we can't do anything about it. Some tell me that it's illegal for a community to try to rein in growth because the Constitution guarantees all Americans the right to live wherever they wish in our country. I recently heard a candidate for county supervisor say during a public forum that the growth issue is untouchable because any attempt to deal with it would result in a rash of lawsuits from outraged developers or other powerful pro-growth advocates. Apparently, the mere threat of opposition by special interest groups to common-sense growth limitations is enough to prevent some leaders from even considering this critical option.

We all should be able to answer four basic questions about growth:

Is growth inevitable?

Is it illegal in the United States for a community to set reasonable growth limits based on voter consensus, common sense and/or hard science?

Is growth always good for the economy?

Are there any American communities that have successfully implemented policies to reduce their rate of growth?

Based on my own research, I think the answers to these questions are:

Growth is definitely not inevitable. Many communities have, to one degree or another, been able to regulate growth.

Although we must take into account federal, state and local laws whenever we initiate growth-limiting policies at the community level, it is not illegal to reduce the rate of growth in response to local conditions.

Growth is not always good for a local economy, especially when the costs of providing tax-supported infrastructure exceed the return in tax revenue.

Many American communities have intentionally limited growth. One is Boulder, Colo., where 70 percent of the voters polled in 1973 favored strong growth limits. The city council initiated controls that are still in force today. They capped both residential and commercial building permits and eventually reduced the rate of growth to 1 percent annually. They bought 33,000 acres of open space and built a greenbelt boundary around the town. They also changed zoning regulations and removed tax incentives designed to encourage speculative development. Boulder's 1973 goal was to stay at fewer than 100,000 people; in 2004, the population of Boulder is 94,000.

Putting controls on community growth, for any reason, is a complex decision that informed advocates on all sides of the issue should discuss and debate.

My concern is that people living in our water-challenged region, who intuitively sense that unrestrained growth is not a sensible idea under present conditions, may not know enough about how growth controls work to tackle their half of that debate. Now would be a good time to remedy that situation.

Chris Hoy is chairman of the Education Committee for the Citizens Water Advocacy Group and an active member of the Open Space Alliance's Committee for Sustainable Communities.