The rain is here, and while that’s good news, even if the mega El Niño develops as predicted, California is not out of the woods when it comes to drought. To the contrary, it’s likely that our state is settling into a new normal — one that will likely include longer dry spells and hotter summers.
So what does this sobering reality mean for San Luis Obispo County? We can’t simply take shorter showers. It’s time to get serious about changing our water infrastructure.
San Luis Obispo County, for one, has recently taken a number of steps to bring our collective water use in line with state mandates and likely long-term precipitation patterns. We looked at our own house first. The county has made it a priority to reduce our demand for water at local public facilities such as parks, golf courses and even the airport. We’re pulling out lawns and installing drought-tolerant plants. In our relatively arid climate, these are common-sense changes that save local water and demonstrate that lawns are not the only option for attractive landscaping.
At least one member of the Board of Supervisors has taken the effort one step further. My colleague Supervisor Bruce Gibson recently made some major changes that allow him to continue to enjoy a green lawn without taxing the limited fresh water flowing into our area. When he needed a plumbing upgrade, Supervisor Gibson opted to install a graywater system that allows him to water his lawn and keep his landscaping attractive without using any more water than his household already uses for showers and laundry.
We are working to make voluntary improvements to your home an option for more homeowners. The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to make the Property-Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing option available to all residents of the unincorporated county. PACE may make it affordable for homeowners to invest in improvements that increase water and energy efficiency by allowing them to pay for the upgrades over up to 20 years through their property taxes, with no money required upfront. That may be good news when your hot water heater breaks, or your lawn is turning brown.
Because the financing runs through the property taxes, PACE is a public-private partnership. The programs are designed to be cost-neutral for municipalities, however. In other words, by making PACE available in SLO County, we are making it easier for homeowners to make efficiency upgrades without straining public coffers. And these types of upgrades often bring utility bills down — or at least help to hold them steady — in an era of rising water and energy prices.
This program has been available in an increasing number of California communities since 2008, and has taken off in recent years. In fact, our neighboring counties have started partnering with the largest residential PACE financing company in the country, the HERO Program, over the last year. They are seeing multiple community benefits from having the program in place.
Take Kern County, which made PACE financing available to residents starting March 2014. The local economic benefits of the program have been tremendous there. Over the past year and a half, Kern County residents have used the HERO Program to make more than 1,500 efficient upgrades for a total investment in their homes of $29.7 million. Those funds go right back into the community and have created $51.4 million in economic stimulus plus more than 250 local jobs.
In this era of extended drought and growing need to address climate change, California residents should ask for options like access to PACE financing. The taxpayers don’t pay, the economic impact is potentially significant and community benefits are undeniable. Demand for water and energy — and greenhouse gas emissions — go down when efficiency goes up. That’s not only good for the planet, it’s also good for our region’s competitiveness and helps us collectively meet state water and energy reduction mandates.
That kind of cost-benefit analysis makes for good public policy — not to mention plain common sense.
Debbie Arnold is a member of the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors. She represents the 5th District.