Water has become a major roadblock to desperately needed housing in rural communities throughout the San Joaquin Valley.
Water scarcity and lack of infrastructure have scared off developers just when housing is most needed, according to officials and nonprofits that work on both water and housing.
By Jesse Vad
“The lack of development interest has a lot to do with being told time and time again that there isn’t sewer or water infrastructure available,” said Aaron Bock, assistant director of the Tulare County Resource Management Agency.
Bock said there is often too much uncertainty when it comes to water and sewer infrastructure for developers to get on board with new housing, leaving some areas short on state-mandated housing goals.
Tulare County is adding roughly 240 new building permits per year, about 15% of what the state expects, said Bock.
“We’re at a small portion of what the state thinks we should be able to achieve,” said Bock. “Honestly, we have the land use and the zoning in the county to accommodate all of this. It’s not like we are holding it back, it doesn’t exist, the development interest.”
Other counties are behind too. Unincorporated parts of Fresno County have a goal of adding 2,722 units of housing between 2015 and 2023. Over the last four years, 436 units have been permitted.
Water Issues Cut Madera County New Housing to a Snail’s Pace
Between 2014 and 2024, Madera County is supposed to add 12,895 units. Over the past five years, 2,442 units have been added.
And from 2014 to 2024, Kern County is supposed to add 21,583 units. In 2020, Kern County issued permits for 451 units.
The latest round of funding from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 could help. Tulare County received about $15 million from the stimulus for infrastructure — a “godsend,” Bock said.
“It’s almost become systemic that the developers went away when there was no infrastructure available,” said Bock. “So, hopefully, this starts to bring back that interest once we get that money.”
For developers to build housing, they must obtain a “will serve” letter, official confirmation by the water provider in the area that the new development can receive water. That usually isn’t a problem. But even after getting the letter, developers are being told to halt their projects because of sudden water problems.
“Even when you make plans based on an assurance of water, things can go awry,” said Tom Collishaw, CEO of nonprofit Self-Help Enterprises. “It’s a big deal.”
Dry Wells Are Major Roadblock
Self-Help has been developing affordable housing throughout the valley for decades. One of its long-term projects recently hit a roadblock because of wells going dry.
The organization has been building housing in the Parksdale community, just outside of Madera, since 2007. It has built about 100 units of multifamily rental units and 80 single-family homes. The current and final phase will add about 40 more homes.
But in mid-August, Madera County officials told Self-Help it couldn’t move forward because there wasn’t enough water. Three of Parksdale’s four wells had failed, in part because of the drought.
And building more wells or drilling deeper doesn’t seem to be a realistic solution, said Tulare County’s Bock. Wells are expensive, often costing upwards of a million dollars, especially since there’s never a guarantee of hitting reliable water.
Cities can usually afford to build more infrastructure and put in new wells when needed, Bock added. In smaller, rural communities, however, that burden usually lies solely with the developer.
The waning interest of developers has led to increased density in already existing housing in many communities, Bock explained. That can put strain on sewer and water systems in units that were designed for a certain number of residents. And quality of life can decline if too many people are living under one roof, said Bock. Places like Earlimart, to the southwest of Porterville and Cutler-Orosi, north of Visalia, are seeing an increase in densities, said Bock.
That’s a problem in many small communities.
Water Shortage Leads to Growth Moratoriums
Some towns, such as Yettem, Seville, and East Orosi, have growth moratoriums meaning building is banned because there isn’t enough water and sewer infrastructure.
“There’s a housing shortage in California,” said Denise England, water resources program director for Tulare County. “There’s these areas that could sustain some growth but there’s no sewer or water infrastructure there so you just can’t do anything.”
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