In a Time of Dryness

Eric Herman Headshot
A Aherman Drypool 0615 Tile
photo of an empty pool | David H.Seymour

California's current four-year drought, the worst in 125 years of recorded precipitation, has created a dust storm of rhetoric and a whirlwind of both enacted and proposed restrictions. The governor has issued a statewide mandate for 25 percent reductions of residential and industrial water use, while embittered finger pointing between farmers and environmentalists has reached a fevered pitch.

Yet for the rest of the country, where overly wet and cold weather has been the norm, all the fuss must seem largely irrelevant. After all, with so much water deluging most of the country, is the drought in one state really that big of a problem?

If you're among the skeptics, consider this: One of the bellwether issues in the crisis, and one receiving an inordinate amount of attention has been the role of the swimming pool, both real and perceived.

Long associated with the lavish lifestyles of the rich and famous, pools have become an easy target for regulators and government officials trying to appear proactive, regardless of the facts. Chief among them: A well-maintained pool uses less water than grass of the equal area.

While that fact, along with practical recommendations for pool covers and leak repair, has staved off some regulations, that hasn't stopped cities such as Montecito and Rancho Santa Margarita from banning the filling of new pools. In other areas, like San Jose, topping off pools is limited to one foot.

For the pool industry at large, the toxic perception swirling around pools should be cause for concern, even if you're in an area with an abundance of water. Grounded almost entirely in perception, pools have become a cultural scapegoat despite the fact that somewhere between 85 and 90 percent of California's potable water is devoted to agribusiness. Never mind that water used in pools is a miniscule fraction of water use — to the minds of many, pools are a luxury that affluent people should be prepared to do without.

"It is a psychological deal," said Jim Norwood, president of the California Pool and Spa Association, to the San Gabriel Valley Tribune*. So much so that pool salesmen are getting cancellation calls.

"People with orders will call them back and say they are having second thoughts," Norwood said. "They don't want to look like the bad guy."

As Steve Scauzillo wrote in the San Gabriel story, "Are swimming pools changing from L.A. icon to P.C. embarrassment?"

The problem for the nationwide pool industry is one of perception. Pools are perceived as wasteful, a stigma that has the potential for changing homeowner attitudes and purchasing decisions.

In his article, Scauzillo spoke with Steve Espenschied, CEO of Kennah Construction Inc. of Huntington Beach. Espenschied is in the business of "reverse pools," meaning he tears them out and fills them in. "As compared to a few years ago, we are definitely busier as far as filling in swimming pools," said Espenschied, who reported that his company is filling in about two swimming pools a week all over Los Angeles and Orange counties.

As is true of economic conditions, which only a few short years ago cut new pool construction by as much as 80 percent in some regions, the weather is cyclical and once the tough times have passed, easily forgotten. Using history as an indicator, California's drought will likely abate in the next few years, if not sooner. And just as many have put the recession in the back of their minds, no doubt wet weather will relieve worries about the drought and all that goes with it.

Yet, as the saying goes, those who ignore the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it. I can't help but wonder if the pool industry, inside California and elsewhere, will forget the lessons of the drought and move forward no wiser. Just as we know this drought will eventually end, we also know equally well that another is never too far down the road.

If we are to proceed with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps we should think in terms of the broader image of pools as resource wasters and realize that whether or not the rain is falling, we'd all do well to go forward with the idea that conserving water, as well as electricity and fossil fuel, should always remain part of our industry's long-term strategy.

Comments or thoughts on this article? Please e-mail [email protected].

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