New Residential Developments Depend on Water Conservation Strategies

July 17, 2023 | E. Christopher Murray | Real Estate, Zoning & Land Use | Environmental

While demand for new housing in the United States is strong, the ability to meet this demand is hampered by lack of water resources. This is especially true in states experiencing population growth such as Florida and Texas. Any proposal to develop new residential housing must include water conservation measures to assure there will be sufficient water for the homes being built.

In Arizona, the development of a 34,000-acre, 100,000-unit new housing community known as Teravalis in the City of Buckeye is being delayed. The developer cannot establish that the development will have the 100-year groundwater supply required by Arizona law. Similarly, in the fast-growing community of Zephyrhills, FL, the city government imposed a moratorium on building new homes on lots of over 1 acre because of the insufficient water supply.

Even in states with a stable population adequate water resources are not guaranteed. Long Island, NY, is one example. Long Island relies on a sole source aquifer for all its water needs. Building new homes impacts this aquifer by not only increasing demand for water but also by increasing the number of impermeable surfaces that pollute stormwater runoff, which ends up in the aquifer.

Limited water resources require that new residential developments are planned to conserve existing water supplies and replenish them by natural means. When rain hits impervious surfaces such as roofs, streets and parking areas, the rainwater picks up pollutants from these surfaces that then flow into bodies of water, such as lakes and aquifers, polluting them and decreasing the amount of usable water for a community. The more compact a development is, the fewer impervious surfaces there are and the more clean water there will be to replenish the water supply.

Developments should include open space in their plans to maximize the amount of clean stormwater that flows into the water supply. In addition, green infrastructure techniques such as rain gardens, permeable soils or pavements, and green roofs can limit the pollutants in stormwater. While these techniques can be costly, governments can encourage developers to include them in their plans through financial incentives.

Also, new housing developments should be built on underutilized, already developed areas. The Northeast and Midwest have numerous areas where manufacturing facilities once existed but now lie unused. Many states have prohibitive and unnecessary remediation requirements to convert a brownfield for residential purposes, as opposed to other uses such as commercial. These restrictions are more onerous than even what the Environmental Protection Agency considers safe. The restrictions serve to discourage the conversion of manufacturing areas to residential use. State laws governing the redevelopment of manufacturing sites into residential parcels, therefore, are ripe for review.

Many states and municipalities have incorporated water conservation measures in their development regulations. For example, in Genesee County in upstate New York, while automatic hook-ups to the county water system are provided in Smart Growth Development Areas, which are already-developed areas in need of revitalization, hook-ups to the county water system are not permitted for developments outside the Smart Growth Development Areas, requiring the developer to obtain a private water supply. In Maryland new residential development must identify water resources available for current and future development and include water pollution reduction efforts.

Water, like any other limited resource, can be an obstacle to housing growth. State and local governments should enact policies to ensure that the plans for housing developments meet the needs of the expanding population and preserve the water supply, so that future generations can enjoy plentiful, clean water.

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