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California Pool Construction Soars During Drought

Ben Adler/CPR

Californians built more backyard swimming pools last year than in any year since the peak of the housing boom. And this year, the state is on pace to shatter last year’s mark.

All this - during one of the worst droughts in California history. That’s prompting some very different reactions from local water agencies.

Aaron Gurley watches his crew tap a leveling tool into wet concrete around the edge of a huge backyard hole-in-the-ground.

“Most people don’t realize the amount of math that goes into building a swimming pool,” he says.

The hole has been sealed with a mix of dry sand and cement to prevent leaks. Now, the crew is getting set to lay natural stone tiles around the pool’s edge.

“So,“ Gurley says, “they’re just really making sure – before we set this first keystone, capstone piece – that the elevation’s right, because everything else is going to follow that.” 

Gurley’s Premier Pools and Spas crew is building the pool for Victoria Deal, who lives in the eastern Sacramento suburb of Folsom. She’s the mother of three boys, and she’s excited to give them a pool to let off their energy in the sweltering summer heat.

“I know there is a lot of people that have asked, wow, I’m surprised that you are putting in a pool, because of the drought,“ says Deal. “But I feel like for us, it’s gonna be great – for family, but also for, our back yard is now gonna be really low-maintenance.” 

Deal is hardly alone in building a pool during the drought. According to the Utah-based industry tracking firm Construction Monitor (see below), Californians built or rebuilt well over 11,000 residential swimming pools last year – the highest since 2007. This year, the state is on track for more than 13,000.

But as local water agencies tighten their restrictions to implement new state-mandated reductions, the pool industry is fighting to survive. It’s one of several water-reliant industries that recently met with Governor Jerry Brown.

“So that’s why we want to hear from all of you and make sure that the people who are working in government listen,” Brown told the industry representatives that day.

Lobbyist John Norwood with the California Pool and Spa Association says some local water agencies are banning the filling of pools. That’s an effective moratorium on pool construction and “a concern in terms of stopping economic activity.” Norwood told the governor.

“Has that happened yet?” Brown asked. Yes, Norwood replied, naming Milpitas and Manteca as two recent examples.

Norwood says the industry generates $5 billion a year for the California economy, with more than 50,000 jobs. More importantly, he says, pools use less water than lawns. A study by a local Orange County water agency says that’s true – eventually. Jonathan Volzke with the Santa Margarita Water District says pools use more water when they’re installed but need less to maintain.

“We went back and did the math,“ Volzke said, “and found that with the pool and the associated decking around it, a pool can actually use less water than grass. And if pool covers are used and the project is big enough, it can actually be as efficient as California-Friendly plants,” also known as drought-tolerant landscape.

The study prompted Volzke’s water district to reverse its ban on filling pools. That restriction now kicks in at a more severe drought response level, when lawn watering and other outdoor water uses are prohibited altogether. And many other local water agencies have done the same. But not all:

“Every increment of water use reduction we can achieve, we have to go for," says West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon. "It’s not a question of, well, we could let this one slide until Stage Four.” 

Cabaldon says the pool industry might – or might not – be right about long-term savings. But for his city, which faces a 28 percent mandated water reduction, the short-term water use would be too high.

“We simply can’t be budgeting for a drought in two years from now,“ Cabaldon says. “We have to deal with this drought that we’re facing today.” 

And the Bay Area city of Milpitas says its ban on new pools, which took effect last year, helped it save enough water to get a lower reduction mandate from the state.

So while industry lobbyists work to sway local water agencies, pool builders like Aaron Gurley are weaving potential water savings into their sales pitch.

“People are now saying, hey, we’ve always wanted a swimming pool, and wow, that’s pretty cool – putting in a swimming pool does help conserve water over lots of other landscape,” Gurley says.

California’s economic rebound is driving pool construction to heights only seen before the housing bubble burst. This time, the threat to the industry isn’t recession – it’s drought.

Copyright 2015 Capital Public Radio