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Where is California Forever getting the water for its proposed new city of 400,000 people?

California Forever makes promise hoping to ease water worries around proposed new city
California Forever makes promise hoping to ease water worries around proposed new city 03:18

SOLANO COUNTY -- California Forever released a report Tuesday addressing one of the biggest questions surrounding its billionaire-backed push to build a new city on Solano County farmland: where exactly they are getting the water to sustain a community of up to 400,000 people? 

Leaders say this initial review found they have secured enough water for the first stage of buildout at 100,000 residents and laid out the company's plan for how they say they will scale their water usage for when the community grows by four times. 

"As a guiding principle over our entire water plan, everything we do, we want it to be protective of other municipalities in Solano and we want to make sure we are not negatively impacting them now or looking into the future," said Bronson Johnson, head of infrastructure and sustainability for California Forever. 

Water plan unpacked 

California Forever has promised its proposed new development will not use any water from the Solano Irrigation District or Lake Berryessa, which supplies the county's water. 

So where is it coming from? 

"Experts have confirmed that we have a diversified portfolio of water sources that won't impact the water sources or supplies of any of the surrounding cities of Solano County," said Johnson. 

Breaking down the numbers, the report claims that "California Forever's portfolio of over 60,000 acres of land in southeastern Solano County currently uses approximately 16,400 AFY (acre-feet per year) of groundwater and surface water, and that at least 13,700 AFY and up to the full 16,400 AFY of these existing water supplies are legally and physically available for use by the new community. For comparison, 16,400 AFY is equivalent to more than the reported annual potable water use by Vallejo and Rio Vista combined."

See also | California Forever promises new Solano County investments, pushback to proposed city grows

The report estimates that by better managing the ground water and surface water already in existence on California Forever land, they will have more than enough water to support their first 100,000 residents. 

Though California's water rights laws are admittedly complex, California Forever says it holds the rights to use the water on its owned properties. 

"So, there's no chance that it would turn up that you guys don't ultimately have the right to use that water?" I asked.

"That is correct. These are fully secured water rights," said Johnson. "There is some additional historical review we are doing called 'proving up water rights.' There is work being done by the attorneys involved in the project to help solidify that, but the State Water Board's findings did match our own internal findings."

But with a plan to ultimately grow to a city of 400,000, California Forever has to prove now as part of a state-regulated and mandated Water Supply Assessment that there will be enough water to do so, even during drought. 

In order to scale, they say they will primarily focus on buying water rights from owners outside the county, recycle wastewater on site and work to better replenish existing groundwater. 

"We have chosen a strategy to source our water that is additive to the county, that makes sure we are being protective of other stakeholders in the county's interests," said Johnson. 

I asked Johnson who California Forever is planning to purchase water rights from. Johnson said those will come from outside Solano County. 

"We have multiple letters of intent and we are talking over a dozen different parties. Generally speaking, they are farms that are looking at water conservation and are enacting a new farm plan to make that transition. As part of the way they might be funding those changes, the sale of water is one of the sources of funds that help them make that conversion," said Johnson. 

Part of the report's findings claim that by "utilizing modern water efficiency techniques," they can estimate the residents of their proposed new community will consume about 60 gallons of water per day. That is 40% less than Solano County's current average. 

"What are those modern water efficiency techniques that are going to lead to that much of a decrease in water usage?" I asked.

"We are building a dense, walkable urban form. That is also much more water efficient because you don't have a lot of personal landscaping that would be typical of suburban development, quarter acre lots with a bunch of lawn around it," said Johnson. 

He also said that code standards today are much more efficient than properties built out decades ago. 

"That's one of the advantages of an urban form is it's more water efficient overall. That's true when you look at cities like SF. They're some of the lowest-consumptive users in the state," said Johnson. "We are going to be building the most sustainable community on the planet because we have this unique opportunity to start from scratch." 

California Forever claims its proposed new city will be affordable, walkable and home to an economic engine that could drive Solano County into a future that might one day look like Silicon Valley. 

But first, they need voter support this November to back their ballot initiative, the East Solano Plan, which would rezone 17,500 acres of its land from agricultural to urban use -- and it has not come easy. 

A mayor's response: more proof, less promise       

Mayor Steve Young of Benicia sits on the Solano County Water Agency Board and told CBS13 he is opposed to California Forever's new city, backed by Silicon Valley billionaires.

"They don't want to necessarily follow the rules, which, tech guys, that's how they roll," said Young. 

Young is referring to the fact that California Forever is planning to get its push to rezone their land from agricultural use to urban use on the November ballot, a process that Young and other Solano County leaders have said cuts through the red tape that every other developer has to first navigate. 

"I don't think people should be able to write their own rules simply because they have the resources to do that," said Young.   

Concerning the water plan, Young says he wants to see more proof and less promise of what water will be available for use and when. 

"The problem, of course, is nobody can control how much water comes down. In the last two years we have had plenty of water, and that's great. But going forward, I don't think anybody expects this will continue to be the same," said Young of groundwater. 

With surface water, Young says Solano County cities have already been concerned that the State could cut its allocation of water from Lake Berryessa. 

"So the idea that there is going to be plenty of surface water available, I think you've got to prove it," said Young. 

Young fears those living in the proposed new city would ultimately pay the price for what he calls "expensive water."

"And while they have lots of money to develop it, it's the ongoing costs for the future residents long after this thing is built and they are gone that those residents are going to be paying perhaps a lot more for water than other cities in the county," said Young. 

See also | Solano Land Trust opposes California Forever due to environmental harm fears, claims of "misleading" marketing

I asked Young what ultimately made him decide to oppose California Forever's plan. 

"I think the promises are a little bit squishy," said Young. "I think they could have turned some of the government officials earlier in their favor had they been more forthcoming about who they were from the start."

A pitch to voters 

California Forever began buying up what now totals about 60,000 acres of land near Fairfield and Travis Airforce Base in secret back in 2018.

They've been met with fierce criticism from community members who do not approve of the proposed new city and have organized their own campaign of opposition. 

"For folks who are not sold that this water plan is 100% fool proof, what would you say to them?" I asked.

"I understand, change can be scary and what we are proposing to do is a big change. But it's a change for the good," responded Johnson. 

He added that this water plan is step one in what will be a 'years long and highly regulated' process. 

"We will be watching very carefully, setting thresholds. We will have some engagement with local stakeholders to be sure we are observing impacts from our water uses and making adjustments over time if needed," said Johnson. 

While it's expected voters will have the final say in November, it is not yet a done deal. 

The Solano County Board of Supervisors will meet on Tuesday, June 25 to settle on one of three options for how to move forward: they can approve the rezoning plan outright, they can recommend the plan for the November ballot, or they can order an impact report before recommending it for the ballot. 

Read California Forever's full water plan here. 

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