Saturday, December 1, 2007

Putting the dam before the plans

Amador Water Agency General Manager Jim Abercrombie has embarked on an early marketing effort to promote raising Lower Bear Reservoir. He's trying to sell the public on the idea by telling anyone who will listen that the county will need the additional water supply by 2030.

Abercrombie has come to this conclusion before the county or any of its cities have concluded their general plan updates -- and before the feasibility studies on Bear are even done. Last time I checked, the general plans -- not Water Agency estimates -- will determine our county's eventual population.

At the same time, Abercrombie is admitting that the Foothill Conservancy has been right about local water supply for more than 17 years: the county can more than double its population on existing water supply. And that doesn't even take into account growth in rural areas not served by the Water Agency, which includes vast parts of the county.

At last week's Regional Planning Committee meeting, AWA engineer Gene Mancebo said the Water Agency has enough water to supply another 16,000 Amador households.

Sixteen-thousand new homes is a lot. In comparison, the largest proposed new subdivision in Amador County is Gold Rush, outside Sutter Creek. It's a proposal for about 1,300 homes.

Sixteen-thousand homes would house a lot of people, too. Based on an average population of about 2.3 people per household, that's 36,800 more people than live in the county today.

Mancebo also said the agency hopes to provide 20 percent of total water supply from recycled water in the future. Since I wasn't in the room, I'm not sure whether he meant "add 20 percent to existing supply," but if he did -- or if an additional 20 percent could be developed through recycling plus efficiency -- that would free up enough potable water to add nearly 14,000 more people without building an expensive dam (15,0000 acre feet existing supply x 20% = 3,000 acre feet. 3,000 af x 2 HH per acre foot x 2.3 people per HH = 13,800 people).

Adding those two population figures results in a startling total: 50,600 people. So what the Water Agency is saying, in effect, is this: we expect Amador County to add more than 50,000 new residents by 2030. That's more people than live in fast-growing Calaveras County today.

Let's take a minute and think about that from a total planning perspective. If Amador County were to grow by more than 50,000 people, where would they live? How would we move them around our already gridlocked roads, many of which cannot be expanded due to lack of funds and the limits of topography or existing buildings?

How would we serve them with underfunded volunteer fire departments? Where would the children go to school, when the cost of new schools far exceeds developer fees? How many new libraries would we need? Would we need a new hospital? New parks and recreational facilities? How many new police officers and sheriff's deputies would have to be hired? Where will the adults work, considering that the price of oil is going to make commuting an increasingly uneconomic activity? They can't all be retired.

Not to mention this question -- the one that probably matters most of all to local residents: what would happen to our cherished rural character?

We need to plan our county based on what local people want to protect and what they want to change. I have yet to hear anyone say publicly that 50,600 additional county residents by 2030, or even nearly 37,000 new residents, is part of their vision for our county's future.

It's clear to me that Abercrombie has put the proverbial cart before the horse. While it is the Water Agency's job to supply water for the county, it's not their job to decide how fast or how much we're going to grow before our general plans are complete.

So when you hear and read those "we're going to need more water" stories, remember what that means -- more than doubling the county's population in the next 22 years. If you think that's a bad idea, be sure to let local officials know.

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