California's Drought Spurs Unexpected Effect: Eco-Friendly Development In the state's agricultural Central Valley, planning is under way to transform peach and plum fields into Kings River Village, a solar-powered community that will send wastewater back into an aquifer.
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California's Drought Spurs Unexpected Effect: Eco-Friendly Development

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California's Drought Spurs Unexpected Effect: Eco-Friendly Development

California's Drought Spurs Unexpected Effect: Eco-Friendly Development

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California's drought doesn't just mean taking shorter showers. The drought is so long-standing and severe that it's beginning to change the way people are designing homes. Valley Public Radio's Ezra David Romero reports on a housing plan in a surprising location.

EZRA DAVID ROMERO, BYLINE: Curt Johansen has taken the train from San Francisco inland. He's a Bay Area developer planning one of the first eco-friendly communities in California's predominantly agriculturally driven Central Valley. The site is in the town of Reedley, 30 miles south of Fresno.

CURT JOHANSEN: I saw all these factors that sort of distinguished Reedley.

ROMERO: A community college, a thriving downtown and recently saying no to Wal-Mart building in the town.

JOHANSEN: Reedley had just updated their general plan. And so I thought, OK, if everyone could try this, let me try this.

ROMERO: We're touring the proposed site of what Johansen calls Kings River Village. It sits near the edge of town and has a view of the Sierra Nevada. Modern-looking low-income housing is on one side and a sports park on the other. But the site itself is 40 acres of what used to be peach and plum trees.

JOHANSEN: When you first arrive, you're looking at very walkable retail with office-above components, so something that you might see more in an urban, bigger city.

ROMERO: He's talking about smaller homes built close to each other with a common green space. That's unusual for cities in the Central Valley dominated by older homes and basic tract houses. Kings River Village, in this city of 26,000, is different from Johansen's past multi-million dollar projects in Southern California and the Bay Area.

JOHANSEN: Embedding principles into everything I did became far more important to me than the fanciest Italian marble in the bathroom.

NICOLE ZIEBA: 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.

ROMERO: Nicole Zieba is a Reedley city manager behind the project. This development is a big deal for a farm town in California. It will run on solar and have its own graywater system. It will have small drought-resistant yards in line with new state regulations. There will also be a system for sending wastewater back into the aquifer underneath the city. Zieba says the amount of water returned to the aquifer could be surprising.

ZIEBA: 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.

ROMERO: But that idea that it would use less water is a fact in dispute. Phil Desatoff is with a local water district suing Reedley over the development's environmental review. He's questioning whether the community will actually help restore the aquifer underneath the city.

PHIL DESATOFF: This project may use less water than most other projects you typically see, but we haven't seen anything that proves that they're actually going to use less water than the land that was there.

ROMERO: He's not the only one questioning the project. Alex McDonald is with a group out of UC Irvine studying drought-friendly housing models. He thinks the community could benefit the environment even more by producing as much energy as residents would use.

ALEX MCDONALD: The industry, for example, is trending towards this notion of net-zero, and that is that you produce more energy than you consume. And you know, the community doesn't quite fully develop itself there.

ROMERO: And McDonald says the city could push the envelope even more by using locally-sourced eco-friendly building materials. Despite the backlash, Kings River Village developer Curt Johansen believes that the environmentally conscious community is a win for the region because change isn't always adopted so quickly in places like Reedley.

JOHANSEN: It will actually have more of an impact, I think, in the Valley. Reedley could serve as an inspiration for a lot of the other cities to actually say, we can demand better here.

ROMERO: Johansen would like to break ground in 2016. For NPR News, I'm Ezra David Romero in Fresno.

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