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Could Swapping Farmland For Eco-Friendly Homes Be A Cure For The Drought?

Jul 7, 2015

Agriculture consumes a lot of water in California, but so do homes and businesses. In the fourth year of drought water consumed by both are issues and both sectors have faced cutbacks. But as Valley Public Radio’s Ezra David Romero reports the Central California town of Reedley is on the move to build an eco-friendly community that some say could use less groundwater for development and living.

In the Valley town of Reedley there’s a plot of ground that once grew 40 acres of green leafy peach and plum trees.   

Nicole Zieba is the City Manager for the City of Reedley. She hopes the project will break ground in 2016.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

It’s here at the edge of the town where city leaders hope to build an eco-friendly village. Community Development Director Kevin Fabino and City Manager Nicole Zieba brought me to the plot of land.

“This is the site,” says Fabino. “We’re on Dinuba Avenue on the south portion of Reedley.” 

Reedley has historically grown in a ring like pattern of cookie cutter tract homes, but City Manager Nicole Zieba says the plan is to change that. Her team is starting with what she calls a “big idea” to convert those 40 acres into an eco-friendly community called Kings River Village.

ROMERO: “What is this dirt and weed’s going to look like?”
ZEIBA: “What I see is this very modern, mixed-use, colorful, vibrant community that I can feel good about knowing that when sticks went up the developer was really concentrating on providing an environmentally responsible place for people to live.”

The clusters of solar powered homes won’t have big yards, but instead will sport small strips of drought resistant plants. Kings River Village will also have transit options, a large green space, a medical facility and grocery stores.  The community will also have a ponding basin for groundwater recharge.

The amount of water recharged could be surprising to some.

"What we found as we did a little delving into some of the studies was that the orchards would use more water than what's envisioned to be used in this particular 40-acre development." - Nicole Zieba
Future plans for Kings River Village.
Credit City of Reedley

“What we found as we did a little delving into some of the studies was that the orchards would use more water than what’s envisioned to be used in this particular 40-acre development,” Zieba says.

The village is projected to use 54-acre feet of water each year. Reedley is also working on a ponding basin with hopes to recharge 100-acre-feet of water annually.

Curt Johansen is the Bay area based developer that is planning Kings River Village.

“Even if it rains for 40 days and 40 nights it doesn’t change the fact that every year we draw down the aquifer,” Johansen says. “We’re just using potable water inappropriately.”

Johansen plans to make this community have the smallest water footprint possible.

“This is quite a prototype for the Valley,” Johansen says. “We think it’s really the future of how to help and we’re proposing here for these homes to have individual grey water recycling systems.”

But to build, the city has hurdles it will have to jump over before Kings River Village can actually go up, primarily a law suit questioning whether the community will actually help restore the aquifer underneath the city. Phil Desatoff is with Consolidated Irrigation District, the entity suing the town. He wants Reedley to offset how much groundwater the city pumps.

Water is a big issue in the Central Valley, but this development could aid in replenishing the aquifer underneath Reedley.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

“This project may use less water than most other projects you typically see, but we haven’t seen anything that proves that they are actually going to use less water than the land that was there,” Desatoff says.

Desatoff isn’t the only one questioning the project. Alex McDonald is the project manager for a group out of University of California, Irvine building a drought-friendly smart housing model.

“I think it’s good in that it provides a transition between urban and suburban life,” says McDonald. “That’s something that quite often hard to achieve and a lot of cities lack in their development.”

"I think this community is not only an answer to building homes in drought times. It's an answer to the longstanding issue of poor air quality in the Valley, poor health in the Valley. It really concentrates all of what I would call our misery index items and addresses all of them." - Nicole Zieba

After looking over the master plan for the proposed community, McDonald thinks the Kings River Village is a step in the right direction, but could be even friendlier to the environment.

“There’s certainly could be a lot more done,” McDonald says. “The industry for example is trending to this notion of net-zero and that is you produce more energy then you consume. And the community doesn’t quite develop itself there. There are all sorts of other things in terms of materials that are locally sourced, eco-friendly, etc. You could push the envelope on that.”

Despite backlash from the water district over groundwater recharge, Zieba – the city manager behind the project – wants Reedley to stand out for best practices when it comes to housing and water in the state.

“I think this community is not only an answer to building homes in drought times,” says Zieba. “It’s an answer to the longstanding issue of poor air quality in the Valley, poor health in the Valley. It really concentrates all of what I would call our misery index items and addresses all of them.”

Zieba believes the environmentally conscious community is a win for the Valley, because change isn’t always adopted so quickly in places like Reedley. She’d like to see the project break ground in 2016.