It can take 20,000 to 30,000 gallons of water to fill a new pool. Some California cities have banned using potable water for that use.
It can take 20,000 to 30,000 gallons of water to fill a new pool. Some California cities have banned using potable water for that use. - 
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The backyard swimming pool may be an icon of suburban California, but as the state’s drought drags on, it’s a prime target for water conservation. Water utilities are putting in mandatory conservation rules and the swimming pool industry is on the losing end.

The drought is top of mind for many customers that walk into the showroom of Royal Pools in San Jose. “They want to know,” said Royal Pools’ Marc Hannigan. “Our customers who are under contract, whose pools are under way right now, are asking: is there going to be water to fill my pool?”

The concern is real, because almost 30 California cities and water agencies have banned filling new pools with potable water during the drought. Others are considering similar rules, which doesn’t surprise Hannigan. He says pools are an easy target.

“It is very symbolic and it looks good, banning swimming pools,” he said. “Really, swimming pools don’t waste water like people think they do.”

Hannigan is referring to an often-cited analysis by the Santa Margarita Water District comparing the water use in backyard pools to landscaping. A new built-in pool can require 20,000 to 30,000 gallons to fill. After that, it uses much less, just topping off.

“You put a cover on those pools, evaporation is done,” Hannigan said. “Fully half the pools we build here have automatic covers on them.”

A lawn can guzzle 20,000 gallons every year. According to the study, a pool, especially with a cover, can use less than a lawn does over time, but it takes three to five years to reach the break-even point.

Some water utilities say that’s too long to wait, because they’re facing steep cutbacks this year, up to 36 percent of their water use. So the drought rules they’re adopting are designed to send a message.

“The tens of thousands of gallons that it takes to fill a pool may not matter much in aggregate,” said San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo. “But the reality is that compared to the necessity of the use of water for drinking, for our everyday needs, pools simply aren’t that high a priority.”

Other cities have cited similar concerns, saying in a drought as serious as this one, only essential uses of water should be allowed.

“We’re all in this thing together, and that means we all need to tighten our belts and in some ways, that’s not always comfortable,” Liccardo said.

Hannigan says the pool industry is already feeling pretty uncomfortable.

“What we don’t know is how many people aren’t calling,” he said. “How many people want a pool and are waiting, after four or five years of recession? Now they have the money and wherewithal to put a pool in, and they’re not calling.”

For now, the pool industry is getting creative. In one Bay Area city, Hannigan’s company is planning on filling a new pool by draining an old one and trucking the water over.