Pool pros contend with extreme events and their impacts on water
Wildfires in December. Hurricanes in November. Freezes in Texas. Drought in California. Record-breaking heat in the Pacific Northwest. These are some of the severe weather events experienced in the past year in the United States. In one way or another, they all impact water, the lifeblood of the pool industry. While the future is hard to predict, it seems likely that severe weather will be more common in the coming years.
“One of the most persistent misconceptions about climate change is that all it’s doing is raising temperatures,” says Dr. Lisa Benton-Short, professor of geography at George Washington University. “It’s destabilizing weather patterns and climate overall, and that’s one of the reasons why we could see, in the same year, incredibly freezing temperatures in the south and blistering heat in the west.”
In addition, Benton-Short says, the destabilizing of weather patterns can mean areas of the country prone to drought could see longer periods of drought as well as higher temperatures. Hurricanes could become more frequent and dump more water. The intensity of recent wildfires, which some scientists refer to as fire storms, is of a magnitude never seen before.
Doug Parker, director of the California Institute for Water Resources, expects the problem to be very localized. Large cities like Los Angeles, with multiple sources of water, may be fairly resilient. “We’re going to see increased water shortages in certain years, which will put somewhat of a stressor on the pool industry,” Parker says. “When you get into smaller communities that might be dependent on just several wells or small water sources, you could have bans on filling swimming pools for some period of time during a drought.”
Clearly, the swimming pool industry needs to prepare. How have pool professionals been affected by severe weather this past year? How are industry leaders preparing for a future of environmental uncertainty?
For Javier Payan, president of Payan Pool Service in the San Diego area, the availability of water has not had an impact on his business so far.
“We always hear about water restrictions,” Payan says. “We just seem to get by every year. The pool industry in Southern California has been pretty insulated from water issues. In a drought year, people are just not going to drain their pools.”
In fact, drought has sometimes benefited Payan’s business, as clients with leaky pools have been motivated to fix them, resulting in more repair work for him.
“I cannot dwell on something until it actually happens,” he says, contemplating possible future water problems. “However, as businesspeople, we should always play out different situations and scenarios so we have a plan when a situation occurs.”
John Norwood, a Sacramento-based attorney, is chief lobbyist for the CPSA. In that role, he has led the trade association’s efforts to educate the state, its 58 counties and 482 cities on the true impact of swimming pools on the state’s precious water resources.
“They say whisky is for drinking and water is for fighting over,” says Norwood. “Water is a very, very sought-after commodity in California. We don’t have enough of it. And then we have periodic droughts, often severe droughts in parts of the state.”
California state law requires every city to have an urban water management plan, and the state produces a guidebook to help cities develop their plans. According to Norwood, before the last drought (2012–16), the guidebook included restrictions on the use of potable water during droughts to fill or refill swimming pools. Using statistics generated by water districts around the state, the CPSA developed materials demonstrating that swimming pools — contrary to appearance — don’t use much water. The organization argues that pools actually save money, since they typically use less water than the landscaping the pool and decking replaces. It further argued that water restrictions are just gestures and accomplish nothing more than to put pool contractors, subcontractors, service companies, suppliers, distributors and others out of business.
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“We were successful at getting all those restrictions taken out [in 2012],” Norwood says. “We demonstrated that if you take all the pools in the state of California in one year, the number of acre feet it would take to fill those pools is de minimis. It would be less than the amount of water that would go into the Folsom Dam in about 15 minutes during a storm.”
The challenge now for the CPSA is to persuade the city councils of hundreds of California cities and towns to either remove, or not impose, restrictions on swimming pools and hot tubs. Regarding those efforts, Norwood has been interviewed scores of times, and he and fellow CPSA members have spoken innumerable times at city council meetings where water restrictions that would affect the industry are being considered. The organization has also launched two statewide campaigns to educate the public about the benefits of pools and spas, and their true impact on water resources.
“California is the largest state,” Norwood notes. “It’s the largest market for pools and spas in the world. We create more employment per acre foot of water use than any other industry. We’re more efficient than almost any other industry in terms of the use of water. We need to be proactive, and anybody in this business who wants to stay in business needs to contribute to the effort by becoming members of PHTA.”
For Kelli Clancy, owner of Legacy Pool & Spa in Carmichael, California, the drought in Northern California has made a huge impact. When chemicals build up in the pools she services, sometimes the owner is reluctant to have her do the necessary draining. Some cities where her company operates have codes governing the draining of pools, and often Clancy must apply for a permit and wait for approval before draining even a foot of water from a pool with chemical buildup.
More than drought conditions, the biggest environmental challenge Clancy has faced in the past few years has been from the rash of wildfires that have plagued the west. “I’ve lived my whole life in California, and I have never experienced wildfire seasons like we’ve had the last couple of years,” she says. “Algae blooms are happening in pools where I never had an algae problem. It becomes expensive for the customer.”
Seeing ash from wildfires falling through the air and into pools like snow has meant cleaning filters more often, as well as adding more chemicals to counteract the effect of the ash. The chemical content of the ash can vary from fire to fire, depending on what is burning, so the aftermath of different fires may require different chemicals. She says more pool covers might help a little, but the way it has been coming down lately, it’s hard to keep ash out of pools.
Drew Nash, vice president of Almar/Jackson Pools in Jupiter, Florida, says water availability has not been a recent problem, though several years ago it was necessary to get permission to fill pools from local municipalities due to a drought and water restrictions. The more recent challenge for Nash is related to rising groundwater and flooding, particularly extreme flooding in June 2020 in south Florida.
“We have modified our engineering over the years to build pools stronger to combat groundwater.” Nash says. “We have added more steel to our pool shells, with spacing 9 inches on center each way instead of 12 inches. Our walls are at least 6 inches thick, not 5 inches, and we shoot gunite at higher PSI levels than in the past.”
The availability of water has not been a problem in the San Antonio, Texas, area, according to JC Rodriguez, owner of Element Pool Company. He credits the local water utility company with increasing the amount of available water, alleviating any threats to pool construction. If anything, he has been adversely affected by a surplus of water.
“In the last few years, it seems like the hurricane season has been producing more rain,” he says. “We have had months of nonstop rainy days. This stops most of our construction processes and delays all our projects. It negatively impacts our business since we are not able to continue meeting milestones and requesting payment draws.”
Then there was the Texas freeze of 2021 and the subsequent power crisis that left 4.5 million homes and businesses without power — some for several days.
“The freeze was a curveball on top of a struggling supply chain,” Rodriquez says. “It affected everything from materials to equipment. We focus on new pool construction, and since suppliers were sending new equipment to maintenance companies as a first priority, we had to adjust accordingly. We installed equipment as we received it and tried to communicate to our customer the reasons for the delay.”
As to the future of the pool business coupled with new level of environmental challenges, Rodriquez echoes a popular opinion. “I don’t have specific solutions for environmental and regulatory challenges, but I believe water consumption will continue to rise,” he says. “As more pools are built, demand per household will increase. Municipalities will need to be proactive in increasing their available water supply.”