Drought puts screws on California's swimming pools

Swimming pools have been part of California's lifestyle for decades, but as the state struggles through its fourth year of a worsening drought, communities are putting bans on filling pools or restricting new pool construction.

A swimming pool in California’s San Fernando Valley.
Jeff Daniels | CNBC

A handful of cities and water districts statewide have implemented restrictions on swimming pools, ranging from moratoriums on swimming pool construction to restrictions on draining and refilling pools. The California Pool and Spa Association, a trade group, has responded to restrictions with a "Let's Pool Together" campaign that gives consumers tips on being more water-efficient.

"They're trying to hammer us with the 'we're the culprits' because we do pools," said Blaine Enbody, who runs Enbody Custom Pools in Moorpark. "But if homeowners put in (landscaping), they are wasting more water than if they had a pool."

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The strictest water rules are found in Montecito, a wealthy community that's home to Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres, Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Berkshire Hathaway's Charlie Munger. New pool construction is banned in Montecito, where nearby water sources, such as Lake Cachuma, are drying up.

There are bans on emptying and refilling swimming pools in at least two communities in the San Francisco Bay area. A ban on filling pools in several Orange County communities in the Santa Margarita Water District was rescinded last year after the pool industry argued that it was being singled out unfairly. The Los Angeles suburb of Glendale considered a moratorium on building new pools last summer but backed off and implemented tougher outdoor irrigation rules instead.

I had one guy who didn't want to buy a pool unless he could get certainty he could get water to fill the pool. I told him I can't control that and to call the water company.
Ray Alderete
owner, Alderete Pools, San Clemente, California

Last month, a moratorium on new swimming pool construction in Coalinga, a Fresno County community hard hit by the drought, was lifted in part to help attract a new Best Western Hotel that wanted a pool. Coalinga still limits the emptying of swimming pools to once every 12 months, although most swimming pools have the same water for up to seven years.

"Some people are deciding to build sooner to avoid possible moratoriums if there is one," said Greg Kearns of Fresno-based Wildwood Pools, a builder in the drought-stricken San Joaquin Valley. "People are extremely eager to get a pool in, particularly in Coalinga, because they were shut off a year or so."

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That said, drought and cost worries also are keeping some homeowners from rushing into putting in a new pool. The average new pool with the latest equipment and decking can cost upwards of $50,000, according to builders.

"Pools are not the kind of thing people put in right after they move in, particularly now with the drought and the cost of a pool," said Mona Flaum, a real estate broker with Pinnacle Estate Properties in Los Angeles. "A few years back, there were more people putting in pools after they moved in."

Industries most impacted by drought
Industries most impacted by drought

All that said, the number of new pools is still rising in California, albeit more slowly than in other areas of the United States.

The number of new pool construction permits in California rose 2.5 percent to 5,200 permits in 2014 from the year prior, according to figures compiled by Metrostudy, a company that tracks real estate data. Last year represented a slowed growth in percentage terms, although the actual number of permits was much higher than the industry experienced during the Great Recession when annual permit numbers sank to below 1,100 permits in 2010 and 2011.

"We're seeing double-digit pool permit growth in certain areas of Texas, Florida and the Carolinas," said Toby Morrison, who tracks the pool market for Metrostudy. "We're not seeing that same growth in California; without the drought, it would be stronger."

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There are approximately 1.18 million residential swimming pools in California, according to Metrostudy. The typical residential pool requires from 10,000 to 30,000 gallons of water to fill, and the current trend is to build shallower pools since diving boards and slides are less popular than in the past because of insurance risk. The shallower depth also means less water to fill and heat, so it can reduce overall maintenance costs.

"I had one guy who didn't want to buy a pool unless he could get certainty he could get water to fill the pool," said Ray Alderete, owner of Alderete Pools in San Clemente, California. "I told him I can't control that and to call the water company."

Some of the new water regulations around the state require swimming pool owners to use covers to cut water loss from evaporation. Fewer than 30 percent of pool owners in California currently have pool covers, according to industry estimates.

Meanwhile, there's also discussion in the state's pool industry about so-called "water neutral pools," which were developed in Australia, which is in the grips of a seven-year drought. The pools harvest rainwater in tanks that are connected to the pool; they also rely on covers to cut evaporation. The water neutral pool does not use potable water and essentially becomes self-sustaining, and there's typically extra water available in the storage tank that can be used for watering plants.