VENTURA, Calif. — Fly over many urbanized areas in California and you’ll see blue rectangles and ovals dotting the landscape, evidence of how ubiquitous swimming pools are in this state.
Backyard swimming pools were largely a luxury confined to the wealthy until the post-World War II housing construction boom. Many developers sold the idea of the glamorous lifestyle to upwardly mobile middle-class buyers by offering pools with their newly minted suburban tract houses.
But now that key icon of the California dream is beginning to fall out of favor as the state grapples with year four of a historic drought. With the state imposing severe water-usage restrictions on local governments, the idea of frolicking in a backyard pool for many doesn’t quite send the right message about commitment to the cause.
Pools are getting a bad reputation based on the intuitive, but not necessarily true, perception that they waste water.
Although swimming pool sales are booming this year, a counter trend is emerging: A growing number of homeowners from San Diego to San Jose are paying thousands of dollars to have their pools removed.
“Whenever we have drought, people look for scapegoats,” says Jon Christensen, an environmental historian and assistant professor at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.
“The North blames the South, the South blames the North, farmers blame the cities, cities blame the farmers,” he adds. “People have gone after the almond [farms], gone after rich people and celebrities with big homes and yards for using too much water. They’ve gone after lawns and now they’re going after swimming pools.”
California has 1.2 million residential swimming pools, according to the California Pool & Spa Association (CPSA), more than any other state, and they have become a big target during this drought.
Rainfall has reached 75 percent of levels typically reached by August at Northern California tracking stations and 47 percent at Central and Southern California tracking stations, according to the California Department of Water Resources.
Water levels at major reservoirs throughout the state range from 17 percent to 62 percent of historic averages.
Moreover, snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, another major source of water, is significantly down. Typically, snowpack reaches its highest level of the year on April 1, averaging 5
Among a variety of actions, some local governments responded by banning permits on new pools and the use of potable water to fill new pools. Several cities reversed those bans after the pool industry association began a campaign aimed at showing that pools, once filled and properly covered when not in use, use little additional water. Other communities offered incentives for homeowners to remove their pools.
“Our workload has increased steadily in the last couple of years,” says David Frisch, owner of Frisch & Sons Construction, a pool demolition contractor in Orange County. “Now with the drought it’s getting even busier.”
California homeowner David Cady is over his swimming pool. So much so that he recently paid a contractor $8,700 to smash the top of the concrete structure, bury the rubble in the back yard and fill in the entire space with compacted dirt.
The pool wasn’t a selling point when Cady, 53, and his wife Connie, 50, bought their home in Danville, east of the San Francisco Bay Area, 22 years ago. The pool got a lot of use when the couple’s son, Ryan, 18, and daughter Erin, 15, were part of the under-10 set, but over time the teenagers’ focus shifted away from the family’s back yard.
Meanwhile, Cady spent more than $30,000 on chemicals, pump repairs and replacements, and a rooftop solar system exclusively to heat the pool.
When the pump gave out for the third or fourth time earlier this year with an estimated repair cost of $3,000, Cady decided he had had enough.
“I made some calls and found that for another $5,000, I could make the whole thing go away,” he says.
Guilt was a factor, too, given the drought.
“During the hot part of the summer,” Cady says, “we would have to put water in the pool twice a week, and we did have a leak, which was hard to find and never satisfactorily taken care of. It doesn’t make you feel good about wasting water to be evaporated.”
A lawn isn’t an option because of local water-use restriction, but a brick patio might be nice, Cady says.
No one, it seems, will miss the pool. Erin now hangs out at a community pool two blocks away, and the rest of the family just isn’t interested.
“I’m not going to miss it at all,” Cady says. “You always worry about kids breaking into a back yard, having a party and someone gets hurt.”
Backyard swimming pools have long been part of the California lifestyle. But some homeowners are calling it quits on pools because they’re tired of water restrictions, maintenance chores and expensive repairs.
A pool can last a lifetime, but its component parts have shorter life expectancies, according to a February 2007 study published by the National Association of Home Builders, a Washington-based trade group.
A pool’s concrete shell can last 25 years or longer and its interior can last 10 to 35 years, depending on the materials used, the study estimated. Decking has a 15-year life span. Waterline tile is good for 10 years. Cleaning equipment punks out after seven to 10 years.
Two-and-a-half decades may sound like a long time, but the costs add up. In fact, anecdotal evidence suggests cost trumps even the drought as a reason to lose a pool.
That doesn’t mean pools are totally out of style, however.
In fact, the number of permits to install new pools in California rose 25 percent, to 6,192, in 2014 from 4,965 in 2013, according to MetroStudy, a building industry research and data firm.
Permits were up 27 percent in Florida and Arizona, 6 percent in Texas and 5 percent nationally over that same period. Floridians and Texans added more pools last year than Californians. The data cover about 85 percent of the national pool market.
The drought has prompted California cities to impose a patchwork quilt of conflicting and frequently changing voluntary guidelines, contingency plans, restrictions, prohibitions and, in some rare cases, fines related to building, filling or refilling pools, spas and hot tubs.
In just one week in mid-July, for instance, one city council voted to ban construction of new pools, two cities proposed rebates for homeowners who buy pool covers, two cities relaxed previously imposed pool-filling restrictions, and one city imposed a pool-filling fee with the money to be used for water conservation measures, according to a summary by the CPSA.
The CPSA and other industry groups argue that, once filled, a pool uses very little water, especially if it’s covered when not in use. Conservationists say neither a pool nor a lawn is water-smarter than drought-resistant plants and permeable hardscapes.
James Cerniglia, 37, lives in San Jose with his wife, Christina, 34; daughter, Sora, 5; son, Angelo, 3; and father-in-law, Frank James, 65.
No one uses the pool in the family’s back yard. Or, to be more accurate, no one can use the pool, because it was drained eight years ago.
“My father-in-law just didn’t want to pay the cost anymore, so it has been sitting empty for quite a long time,” Cerniglia says.
When he bought the house from his father-in-law 18 months ago, Cerniglia wanted to remodel the pool — or at least bring it back to life. The cost, starting at $18,000, proved prohibitive.
He already had spent $1,200 to put new grass and a sprinkler system in his front yard only to have the same city that had threatened to penalize him for dead grass turn around and tell him to let the grass die because of the drought.
The scratchy brown grass and empty pool mean Cerniglia’s children have no play space on the property.
“Having the kids be able to run around and enjoy themselves outside of the house is something that we’ve been lacking for quite a few years,” he says.
Removing the pool would cost $8,400.
Unlike homeowners who want to rid themselves of an unwanted pool, Cerniglia is disappointed.
“We live in California,” he says. “It’s hot. It’s dry. Who doesn’t want a swimming pool to relax in?”
The Santa Clara Valley Water District, which serves San Jose and surrounding areas, offers a rebate of $2 per square foot for removal of high water-using landscaping, including lawns and pools, says Ashley Carter, a water conservation specialist at the agency.
Cerniglia’s demolition probably wouldn’t qualify because his pool isn’t functional and he wants to put artificial turf rather than low water-using plants over the fill dirt.
As of mid-summer, five pool removals had qualified for the water district’s rebate, introduced in 2014. The pools accounted for about 3,000 square feet of the 2.5 million square feet of landscaping removed last year.
Carter says the rebate is an extra incentive, although it’s unlikely to motivate people who haven’t already conceived the notion of removing their pool. The high cost is often a deterrent.
“A lot of people who do our lawn removal program are do-it-yourselfers who are out there with a shovel digging it up. A pool requires a contractor to come in and use heavy machinery to do it correctly,” she says.
Removing a pool isn’t easy.
Frisch, the pool demolition contractor, says the job typically takes about a week, including wait times for city inspections.
A full removal involves breaking up all of the concrete and other material and hauling it away. With a partial removal, holes are punched and the rubble is buried in the deep end. Both options require a lot of dirt.
The partial option is cheaper, but city building codes often prohibit the construction of living space or other permanent structures on top of a former pool.
Frisch estimates that half his company’s clients remove a pool because of the drought. The other half are older baby boomers who no longer use their pools or investors who remove pools from rental houses because of liability concerns.
Chris Burd, owner of Dig & Demo, a pool-removal contractor in San Ramon, says his clients include retirees who no longer use or want to maintain their pools, home buyers who don’t want a pool or have young children and think its a safety hazard, and people who “just consider a pool to be an eyesore.”
Homeowner Cady thinks pools are becoming outdated.
“If the drought continues,” he says, pools “are something that’s not good for everybody as a shared thing.”
Marcie Geffner is a freelance writer.