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Water Pressure
Lessons from the California drought can help property managers everywhere
Jessica Bates

Originally published in the July/August 2015 issue of BOMA Magazine.

For those not living and working in California, it can be difficult to comprehend just how dire the drought conditions in the state have become. The area has always struggled to meet its water consumption needs, but as river basins dry up and mountain snowpack levels hit record lows, California is no longer able to rely on even basic water reserves it once took for granted. The past three years have been the driest on record for the state, and many experts worry this year could be even drier.

California isn't alone. While some parts of the country were inundated with snow or rainfall this year, nearly 40 percent of the contiguous United States currently is experiencing some level of drought, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The cost of water is rising in many cities, and the trend is expected to continue. And, while California's commercial property owners and managers work to help meet Governor Jerry Brown's latest mandate to reduce statewide potable water consumption by 25 percent, it seems the new normal in California also reflects emerging best practices for water reduction across the country.


For many within the state, water conservation is nothing new. Particularly in areas of Southern California, where as much as 90 percent of the potable water is imported, property professionals began taking a serious look at water reduction years ago. Benchmarking water along with energy has become relatively standard within the region, and nearly every building has some cost-saving water reduction measures in place. Nonetheless, the recent drought presents a new set of expectations. "The mentality in the commercial real estate industry a few years ago was completely different than it is now," explains Lynn Hulbert, director of Property Management for Brandywine Realty Trust and vice president of BOMA/San Diego. "Back then, we still had our beautiful lawns and fountains, and we thought we were being water conscious just by installing smart meters. Now, the mindset has changed completely."

Lush, green lawns are rapidly becoming a thing of the past, and many property owners are removing ornamental water features altogether (although recirculated fountains are exempt from the latest restrictions). Accounting for nearly one-third of average water use in commercial buildings, landscaping has been the hardest hit. In fact, the California State Water Resources Control Board is specifically targeting outdoor use for reduction across the state, as it is the easiest way to lower water consumption without compromising health and safety. Many counties in California are offering significant rebates—up to $3.75 per square foot—for property owners to remove turf, which is particularly water-intensive to maintain. Some buildings have opted for artificial turf, while others have put in rock gardens and drought-resistant plants. "Many people think the only drought-resistant plants are cactuses, but there actually are hundreds, if not thousands, of beautiful, sustainable plants that are drought-appropriate," says Clint Collins, senior director of Landscape Operations with Irvine Company Office Properties in Orange County, California.

Experts say buildings also can see big reductions from changing the way they water their landscaping. Low-flow, high-efficiency sprinklers, drip irrigation, smart irrigation controllers and master valves that shut off in response to leaks are allowing landscapers to dramatically lower consumption. However, there are many no- or low-cost options for property owners and managers to consider before turning to capital investments like greywater irrigation or reclaimed water systems. Simply maintaining the irrigation system currently in place, watching for leaks and cutting back a day on watering can translate into major savings.

For commercial properties that already have reduced water use outside of the building, there are water-saving measures to put in place inside as well. Regularly inspecting pipes and the HVAC system to identify and fix leaks not only will save water, it may prevent long term damage to building systems. Replacing sinks, toilets and urinals with low-flow fixtures can make a big difference over the long term, and some management teams are exploring new cleaning techniques that use little or no water. This complements recent local regulations that specifically prohibit using potable water to wash sidewalks and driveways, and many California buildings have phased out pressure washing altogether. Neal Perkey, RPA, FMA, general manager at Davis Partners in Los Angeles, says that management teams should continually look for new ways to cut back. "Meet with your staff regularly and discuss new ideas for conservation," Perkey recommends. "Take a hard look at everything in your building that uses water, from your restrooms to your kitchens. You can't take anything for granted."


For property professionals who already have been working to reduce water in recent years, the latest mandates in California can seem daunting. Though the state hopes to see a 25 percent overall reduction in potable water use, each local water agency has been given a specific target—ranging from nine to 36 percent—which they will be in charge of enforcing. Different agencies will not require the same reductions across-the-board; in some cities, the residential sector may be tasked with the majority of cuts, whereas, in others, it may fall to commercial.

While some industry professionals may worry that their highly efficient building will be asked to reduce the same amount as another building that has never done benchmarking, California water officials have made it clear that their goal is to save water, not to levy unfair restrictions and fines. "The best way to prepare for the mandates is to be proactive; for those who have already invested in water saving measures, they have a shorter distance to go," says Max Gomberg, senior environmental scientist for the California State Water Resources Control Board. "We've encouraged water agencies to focus their efforts on the users where the biggest gains can be made."

Property professionals who are unclear on what is being expected of them are encouraged to reach out to their local officials. In fact, some water authorities still may be in the midst of determining where they are going to make reductions and may benefit from speaking with those who have an understanding of how the local commercial real estate industry is succeeding in water conservation efforts. When speaking with local water officials, commercial property owners and managers should be prepared with benchmarking data and current best practices to make it clear that water is being used responsibly. They also should be open to considering additional steps in order to assist with local conservation efforts. "This is really about self-interest and self-preservation," Gomberg adds. "We're all in this together."


Buildings in California may look and operate differently in the years to come, but property professionals are optimistic about the future of the industry in the state. "The drought is something everyone needs to address, but it doesn't seem to be impacting commercial property values," says Tracey Johnson, CPM, LEED Green Associate, director of Operations for Colliers International in Sacramento. "California has staying power," she adds.

As with any rapidly changing situation, the need for communication is key. In addition to reaching out to local officials, property managers are encouraged to communicate with their tenants and building owners about changes that are being made to conserve water. One positive effect of the recent drought is that more and more tenants and owners are embracing strict water conservation methods, and property managers, long accustomed to carefully managing their buildings' resources, are poised as conservation leaders within their communities.

Property professionals across California already are preparing for a longer drought, rising water costs and new statewide mandates. In some cases, BOMA local associations are working with cities to ensure future water resources through new treatment plants, recycled water systems and even saltwater reclamation plants. "We have to remember that we live in a desert," adds Brandywine Realty Trust's Hulbert. "Thankfully, as property managers, we're already used to thinking outside the box."

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