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Water conservation

Swimming pool construction flows ahead despite drought

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Swimming pool construction during the drought

A worker pumps gunite into a new swimming pool while another scrapes the wall with a trowel at a job site in St. Helena on Friday.

Much of California has dried up over four years – but not, for the most part, the business of building swimming pools.

Builders locally and elsewhere report business holding steady or even increasing, as a recovering economy outweighs fears of tightened water use curbs in the fourth year of a statewide drought.

“It sounds strange, I know,” said Tim Kepplin, founder and co-owner of the Paradise Pool & Spa company in Napa. “Last year was our best (business) in 35 years, and this year looks like the same,” he said, expecting to match the nearly 50 pools his company installed in 2014.

With the passing of the Great Recession, Kepplin said, more Napans have had the means to add or overhaul the gathering places outside their homes at rates of $40,000 to $60,000 for a new pool, or $20,000 to $40,000 for a remodeling.

‘It’s just the economy in general. The economy is looking up and people are willing to spend more money – and it’s the Napa Valley,” he said.

Statewide, pool building has reached levels not seen since the tail end of the mid-2000s home construction boom. Construction Monitor, a research company that tracks building permits, reported Californians added or renovated about 11,000 pools in 2014, the most in seven years – and that builders are on pace for 13,000 this year.

Business has prospered even as some cities and water districts have increased their scrutiny on pool construction at a time when Gov. Jerry Brown has ordered towns to cut their use of drinkable water between 20 and 35 percent.

The governor’s April 1 mandate did not include any directives targeting residential pools, but at least a dozen towns and water districts, such as San Jose, have put stops on filling, refilling, draining, and construction permits. Other towns, including Milpitas in the South Bay, have blocked all new pool construction.

The city of Napa included pool-filling limits in the package of water-use curbs it imposed last September. Owners cannot refill or empty their pools, except to make repairs or correct imbalances of chlorine and other chemicals.

Nonetheless, the head of Napa’s water agency saw residential pools as one of the lesser weak points in the conservation effort. When the City Council signed off on a new package of water use rules in May, Joy Eldredge, manager of the Water Division, proposed no new pool restrictions.

“We have seen an increase in people calling us, concerned about putting pools in, making sure they’re OK,” she said last week. “Mostly, what we encourage is for people to have pool covers.”

City records show 10 permits for new pools and spas through June 10, versus five in the same period in 2014.

Covers have grown in popularity among Paradise Pool customers during the drought, according to its owner.

“People really are conscientious,” said Kepplin, whose company usually charges $12,000 to $15,000 per cover. “They want a pool, but they also want to make good choices on water management.”

The pool industry has responded with a campaign arguing its products consume no more water than lawns of similar size. When homeowners opt for pool covers, evaporation losses drop by about 90 percent – and pool surrounds that replace grass cut consumption further, members of the California Pool and Spa Association have asserted in their campaign, known as Let’s Pool Together.

Even with the evaporation savings of a cover, skeptics have questioned the pool-vs.-grass argument, saying variables like frequency of lawn watering and losses from splashing pool water can make the comparison nearly meaningless. Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute environmental research nonprofit in Oakland, said homeowners can save even more water by switching to drought-tolerant plants or allowing lawns to become brown during the drought.

“It’s all about the choices you make,” Gleick said. “We’re in a drought and if you have a pool, I’m not saying remove it — but you sure better cover it.”

Keith Harbeck, a Sacramento-area pool builder and member of the state pool association, cited figures from the Public Policy Institute of California and the Santa Margarita Water District – an Orange County agency that repealed its own pool-filling ban after only a month – that he said indicate covered pools require more water than conventional lawns when filled for the first time, but use less water in later years.

According to Harbeck, a 1,200-square-foot pool installation, with 475 square feet of water area surrounded by deck and hard surfaces, requires 25,755 gallons in its first year (compared to 31,673 gallons if not covered), while water demand for the same area of greenery would range from 16,821 gallons for drought-tolerant plants to 42,480 gallons for grass. After five years, he added, the total water-use gap between a covered pool and turf would widen to 61,266 gallons for the former and 212,400 gallons for the latter.

“We’re not trying to say to people, ‘Save water and build a pool,” said Harbeck, whose Rancho Cordova-based Premier Pools and Spas built about 450 pools last year. “But if your family wants a pool, then don’t feel bad about it.

“You won’t solve the water problem in California by putting an industry out of business; you’d put 11,000 (construction) people out of work if you did that.”

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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