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I’m getting a lot of mail from my local (Trabuco Canyon) water district these days, with each successive missive sounding more desperate and shrill: we need to use 32% less water due to the ongoing four-year drought by cutting down on irrigation, tearing up lawns, buying new appliances, and not drinking water in restaurants.

The fine for breaking the new rules is $500, and there is a place on their web site to snitch on your neighbor.   “Let’s step up together and do this,” writes our district general manager.

That seems fair and reasonable. We must all tighten our belts, water-wise.

Yet not quite all of us, as it turns out.

While these dire warning letters go out the front door of water districts throughout Orange County, letters of a very different sort quietly slip out the back: “will serve” letters to developers, informing them that there is plenty of water for their projects.

My water district, for example, will be serving 84 new houses (“Skyridge”) on El Toro Road, and 65 in a new gated tract (“Saddle Crest”) on Santiago Canyon. According to an environmental impact report for the latter, each of the 65 new houses—16 with swimming pools—will consume 2,216 gallons per day, equating to 34,456 glasses of water in the restaurant. Then there’s the “Esperanza Hills” tract near Yorba Linda, approved by county supervisors in June—340 houses, each averaging over 1,000 gallons per day.

No problem, can do, said the Yorba Linda Water District, meanwhile telling existing customers to cut back 35%.

Such examples abound across Orange County, where it seems that the gap between water preaching and practice can only widen with 89,000 new houses, apartments and condos in the development pipeline.

How can it be that existing residents must watch every drop, while cities, counties, and water districts approve more and more water-guzzling housing tracts as if there’s no tomorrow?

How can my water district tell me the faucets will run dry after one more year of drought, but there’s enough water to supply 149 new houses down the road? (In fact, the Saddle Crest EIR cites district data showing more than enough to supply projected growth through 2035).

Whether it’s money or water, are our public officials behaving responsibly when they spend more than they have, or squeeze the people they were elected to represent in order to reward their developer campaign contributors?

I would like to hear their answers to these questions.

In the meantime, I’m going to sneak a glass of water.

Ray Chandos is secretary treasurer of the Rural Canyons Conservation Fund and has participated in legal fights against developments like Saddlecrest.

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