Where the Water Grows

Folsom's strategy for growth, like that of many cities, reroutes conserved water ­— but residents say that plan caught them off guard

Back Longreads Feb 13, 2018 By Samantha Young

When Folsom residents endorsed the expansion of their city more than a decade ago, it was unclear just how developers would find water to supply new homes and businesses. Ironically, state-mandated conservation imposed in response to drought provided what has become a controversial solution.        

Directed by the state Legislature in 2009 to reduce water use by 20 percent, the City of Folsom came up with a plan that would both meet that conservation target and give a group of six landowners the critical water they needed to grow the city south of Highway 50.

In essence, the water saved during the drought will now go to the more than 11,000 new households planned for the 3,520-acre Folsom Ranch development, an urban, midtown- center type of community about 20 miles east of Sacramento along Highway 50.

“We feel that even after all the development is complete, decades from now, we will still have ample supply and surpluses most years.”Andy Morin, mayor, City of Folsom

It’s an often-used and court-approved move that a state water board called premature and critics describe as a legal finagling of water rights that could leave the city strapped for water in the future. But it’s a strategy city officials say shows due diligence and ensures Folsom water stays in Folsom.

“We feel that even after all the development is complete, decades from now, we will still have ample supply and surpluses most years,” Folsom Mayor Andy Morin says. “That’s good planning.”


In 2004, voters approved Measure W, which outlined the annexation of 3,520 acres of Sacramento County’s ranch and oak woodlands south of Highway 50 into the City of Folsom. The measure stipulated that any new development must find its own water supply, along with other conditions for transportation and open space. It specifically stated new water supplies, transit improvements or school construction should not impose any cost burdens on existing residents.

Related: Bridge Over Troubled Waters

Related: Director of the Water Policy Center on California water management

Several years later, the state Legislature responded to the 2007-2009 drought with legislation that required urban water suppliers to reduce per capita use by 20 percent by 2020. The City of Folsom imposed standard strategies like water metering and struck a deal with the developers south of Hwy 50 to shoulder the $8 million cost to fix leaks in the City’s existing water supply system, including a major pipeline built in the 1960s that serves aerospace and defense contractor Aerojet Rocketdyne (which announced last year it will move most of its workforce and operations to Huntsville, Ala.).

As part of the deal, Folsom Ranch developers could tap into Folsom’s conserved water supply. The solution, Morin says, was a win-win: Developers got the water they needed, and Folsom’s conservation efforts could fuel controlled growth without burdening residents. But the arrangement has irked some Folsom residents who feel Folsom ought to save its water supply.

What to do with the water Folsom has conserved came down to an interpretation of two state laws.

Under the new state conservation law, water saved could not be repurposed for use by existing Folsom residents or businesses. Yet last year, a state water board told city officials that a different law would prohibit the reappropriation of conserved water even if it went unused. Morin and other city leaders still feared the chance of Folsom losing its water rights. So the city reallocated its conserved water to the Folsom Ranch development and got a state court to sign off on the plan in 2013. By reclassifying the conserved water as “new water,” the City and developers met a key requirement to develop the land for Folsom Ranch under Measure W.

Some Folsom residents, however, see the plan as disingenuous, arguing that “new water” is water secured from another source, such as groundwater or another water agency. They say the water the city has conserved should remain available for use during future droughts — something residents say the law allows.

In September 2017, a state water board determined that “it is premature to conclude that there are enough long-term savings to support the Folsom South Area.” It encouraged the City to wait for several more years to more accurately account for their water savings.

“The spirit of the law was violated,” says Folsom resident and 2018 City Council candidate Chad Vander Veen of the stipulations in Measure W. “I don’t think voters saw repairing pipes as a new water source, especially at the same time Folsom residents were being asked to conserve water.”


The development plan for Folsom Ranch, approved by the City Council in 2011, envisions an urban-type community that sits across the highway from Folsom — a town that, like many of Sacramento’s suburbs, has skyrocketed in growth in the last few decades. The city has grown from a population of 5,810 in 1970 to 77,271 in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Much of this growth has occurred as current residents, like those around much of the state, have been asked to reduce their per capita consumption of water.

Related: The Great Millennial Migration

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An analysis by the City projects that the new houses, the first to be completed this spring, will need 5,600 acre feet of water a year by the time the development is built out over the next 20 to 30 years. That’s less than the 6,450 acre feet a year the City has saved by fixing leaky pipes and imposing metered water rates.

Along with concerns about increased traffic and loss of open space, suburban development like that in Folsom and elsewhere in the Sacramento region has environmental groups and residents fearful of water shortages in the future, especially after the most recent historic five-year drought.

And while Folsom has long-standing water rights in the American River Watershed — which feeds into Folsom Lake — so do other farmers and jurisdictions, such as Roseville and Sacramento. And potential changes to how the state manages the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the hub of California’s water delivery network, might also affect local supplies one day.

“I think it is part of a bigger problem of the entire Sacramento region development. There are so many fingers in the pot and so many people with water rights,” says Beth Kelly, president of the Heritage Preservation League of Folsom, a nonprofit group formed by residents who want to preserve Folsom’s historic past. “I don’t think anybody has a good idea if there is enough water for all this development.”

City officials say the water board’s caution is unsubstantiated because Folsom has clearly documented long-term water savings with its investments in water efficiency.

“We have and always will be able to provide water even under the highest drought circumstances,” says Folsom City Manager Evert Palmer.


When cities plan for growth and large developments, state law requires they sync their plans with water supply, says Ellen Hanak, director of the Water Policy Center at the Public Policy Institute of California. When the PPIC surveyed cities last year about their long-term management of water supplies, most water agencies counted conservation as a piece of their strategy for supplying the water needed to sustain growth. In an earlier survey, Hanak found that 25-30 percent of communities across the state that approved large new developments required additional conservation measures.

For conserved water to be a reliable source, water experts say it must be long-term conservation that provides durable water savings into the future, not just temporary water savings that only address an immediate need.

“Long-term conservation is considered as a long-term supply source for agencies,” Hanak says.

City officials say Folsom’s deal with developers south of Hwy 50 to fix the City’s existing infrastructure falls into the category of long-term conservation — the city’s water use is far more efficient now that its leaky pipes have been patched. Water rationing during a drought, such as limiting outdoor watering to a few days a week, aren’t considered permanent savings, because when a drought is over, residents and businesses often revert back to old habits.

Sustainable water conservation has been working in California, with the amount of water that cities use steadily falling since the mid-1990s. While the state’s population has grown from 31.7 million in 1995 to 37.3 million in 2010, residents in urban areas have reduced their per capita water use from 232 gallons per day to 178 gallons a day during that period. In 2015, in response to the latest drought, water-conscious Californians in urban areas cut their water consumption to just 130 gallons a day, according to statistics compiled by the PPIC. Overall, water use in California’s urban areas fell from a total of 7.6 millions-of-acre-feet in 2013 to 5.7 millions-of-acre-feet in 2015, a decline of nearly 25 percent.

The reductions in urban water use have allowed California to grow without having to find costly new water supplies, such as cleaning up groundwater or buying water elsewhere. Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis and a professor of civil and environmental engineering, explains it as a proven, reliable source of water — a known amount saved from a known source. And in many cases, like with Folsom Ranch, residents aren’t shouldering the cost of developing new water supplies if conserved water can be tapped.

Folsom Ranch developers have pledged to build the new community “without diminishing the water supplies or raising costs for current Folsom residents.” All new buildings will be fitted with low-use or low-flow fixtures, and drought-tolerant landscaping shall be followed.

It’s an agreement Folsom Ranch spokesman Ian Cornell says benefits “both current and future city residents.” And because Folsom Ranch developers didn’t have to build a pipeline to secure new water, they also agreed to build additional amenities including 138 acres of parks, more than 30 miles of trails, and a new aquatic center “at an estimated cost of $170 million and at no cost to existing residents of Folsom.”

Yet some residents say they still don’t understand how the city can have enough water for the largest expansion of its borders since the mid 1980s.

“If we run into another drought and we have thousands of more people dependent on one source of water, you’re bound to get to a point where people won’t have what they need,” says Barbara Leary, a longtime Folsom resident and executive committee chair of the Sacramento branch of the Sierra Club. “I think the city is being very, very optimistic.”

Reservations aside, the strategy of reallocating conserved water for new growth, water experts say, is common practice in California’s growing metropolitan areas, and conserved water is often classified as a new available water supply as California’s suburban and urban areas look to meet the state’s critical housing demand.

“This is not unique to Folsom,” says Lund of UC Davis. “A lot of growth in California is happening with the use of conserved water.”