A new city has been proposed in California, and I’ve never been more captivated by a vision for the future of my home state in my lifetime. This post is part of a series I’m writing about this bold proposal.

One of the biggest questions I had when I first learned about this proposal was whether it is resilient to climate. We were in a neverending drought during my childhood in California, and my parents constantly reminded me to turn off the tap while brushing my teeth and let the lawn turn brown to conserve water. I also had memories of driving through Solano County and seeing how flat the land was, wondering what would happen in a flood. So naturally, I was interested to understand the climate implications of the location that California Forever selected, given the state’s past and future challenges.

Is there flood or sea level rise risk?

On the topic of flooding, the answer ended up being surprisingly straightforward. In the ballot initiative, California Forever stated that they are not building on any ground that is below the projected 2150 sea level rise levels, based on one of the more conservative scenarios from the state guidelines.

Here’s a map of potential water elevations from the intermediate-high 2150 sea level rise estimate superimposed over the 100-year FEMA flood level relative to the proposed site, and it turns out that the site for the new city was placed out of the way of even the most pessimistic sea level rise and flood zones. In fact the site is much more elevated than already-populated places like Oakland and Berkeley! So it seems that flooding just isn’t a problem for this project, despite my initial fears.
This map shows the potential inundation from a conservative 2150 sea level rise projection for 2150 combined with the FEMA 100-year flood event. According to California Forever, the small corners of the new community in the northeast that are inside the inundation zones will be either raised above the 2150 level through fill, or will remain as parks and open space.

What about fire risk?

The answer to this question is pretty straightforward too: the site has virtually no trees on it, so there is no risk of forest fire. The only fire risk nearby would be from grass fires, which are much easier to mitigate through good land management practices, like sheep grazing.

Beyond that, California Forever plans to build several thousands of acres of agrivoltaics — basically solar farms with sheep grazing — in the surrounding greenbelt, which will not only help keep fires down, but also reduce associated smoke and air quality issues.

Long story short, there’s very little mapped fire risk anywhere near the site – in fact the following map had to be zoomed pretty far out before any CalFire-mapped fire risk came into the frame:

The silhouette of the proposed New Community (the small area in the middle of the map) overlaid with the Fire Hazard Severity Zones from CalFire, which is "based on fuel loading, slope, fire weather, and other relevant factors present, including areas where winds have been identified by the department as a major cause of wildfire spread."

Is there enough water?

When I dug into the water question, I was surprised to find that having enough water for human consumption will require work and good design, but it’s a solvable problem. I’ll dive more deeply into each of these, but long story short, California Forever has multiple routes for securing an adequate water supply:
  • First of all, the new city will be designed to minimize per capita water usage well below that of neighboring communities.
  • Then, their landholdings already include water rights that can supply some of the water for the new city.
  • California has a robust market for trading water rights, and urban uses are more than capable of paying the price needed to ensure access to that water.
  • Finally, securing adequate water supply is a legal requirement, so they won't be allowed to build without a plan for water that satisfies state regulators.

Designed for resilience & efficiency from the ground up

Water use varies dramatically across California’s cities. For example in September 2014, East Los Angeles averaged 48 gallons a day per person, while northern San Diego averaged more than 580 gallons a day per person — 12 times more per person!

Water efficiency is a big focus for California Forever. The way that a community is built from the ground up can make a huge difference in how much water residents use. Through a combination of ultra-efficient appliances and fixtures, small backyards, and (most importantly!) a system for recycling and reusing water, they are targeting per capita water use levels that will be among the lowest in the state. They are also looking into using drought-resistant plants in landscaping and implementing smart irrigation systems that adjust watering based on weather conditions and soil moisture levels.

In addition, California Forever will reuse the recycled water it generates from wastewater. This can offset the amount of potable water needed and be substituted for surface water currently devoted to irrigation of agriculture in the lands around the city. Their plans also include stormwater measures that would promote the recharge of the aquifer beneath the site, replenishing groundwater supply in the process.

If anything, the new city may actually reduce the state’s water usage when projecting for future growth. The current pattern of development and sprawl uses way more water than the plan that California Forever has proposed, so if the state’s growth gets redirected to this new city instead of places where most growth has currently been happening, average water usage across the state might actually go down!
Water usage varies dramatically across California’s cities (data source: Pacific Institute)

CF’s landholdings already have water rights

To begin, some of the water can come directly from California Forever’s property. The project’s urban planner Gabriel Metcalf explained that almond orchards in their landholdings could provide enough water to support 85,000 people (conserving groundwater used on the orchards and instead using it to support household use)!

There is a robust market for water rights

To zoom out, the amount of water consumed by humans is tiny in California compared to agricultural and environmental uses — only about 10% goes to urban uses, while 50% is environmental and 40% is agricultural — so in times of drought, it only takes a small amount of the non-urban uses to be redirected towards humans to make up for any shortfall in conjunction with curtailment of non-essential urban uses like landscape irrigation.

This redirection towards the most critical uses is able to happen because the state of California has created well-defined property rights that allows water to be bought and sold, creating a market that allows water to flow to where it’s most needed. There is a well-defined hierarchy of water rights to determine how a given water source is used, and what happens when its volume reduces during dry periods. To ensure that these property rights are respected, the State Water Resources Control Board has a monitoring regime to make sure that people take only the water they have rights to.

Urban uses of water can demand the highest price, since they are for critical uses like drinking water. The higher levels of economic activity and population density also means that they generate more revenue to cover water costs compared to other activities. The combination of urban uses being able to outbid almost all other uses plus California’s robust water market means that even if California Forever did need to draw from an outside source, they would be able to get the water they need.

Long story short, the way a city (or any other use) comes up with water to supplement its local supplies is to pay for it, either by purchasing the land and associated water rights or by purchasing water through California’s system of rights that has operated for a long time.

Securing adequate water supply is a legal requirement

Finally, California’s system for regulating development requires developers to secure adequate supply. The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires developers to complete a Water Supply Assessment (WSA), which means that at each stage of development, the project sponsor has to prove that they have secured rights to water, as well as the methods of withdrawing, conveying, storing, and treating the water to ensure an adequate supply for the land use they are trying to permit.

Furthermore, California Forever has explicitly added a requirement to complete a CEQA Environmental Impact Report in the language of their proposed ballot measure, further tying themselves to the mast on the requirement to guarantee an adequate supply before they are allowed to begin development.

My takeaway from all of this is that adequate water access is not a major obstacle for this proposal. The new city fits nicely into the existing framework of water rights that California established a long time ago, and if anything it may reduce per capita water usage by redirecting new development to a place that is prioritizing resiliency and efficiency from the ground up.

If you’re interested in understanding more about the new city that California Forever has proposed, here are the other posts in the series:

* For a long time, the glaring exception to this rule was groundwater, and many parts of California essentially "mined" groundwater in the sense that they withdrew it faster than it could replenish. But that changed in 2014 with the passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA, pronounced "sig-ma"). SGMA requires that each groundwater basin have a plan for managing it at a sustainable level, such that it is not withdrawn at a faster rate than it is replenished over time.
** For example in the 2012-2016 drought, the state reduced environmental water allocations to reserve supplies for farms and cities.