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SAVE WATER? SURE! PAY MORE? UH . . .

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A poll within the 12-county Central Utah Water Conservancy District found Utahns favor water conservation, unless they have to pay for it.

The survey of 604 residents was conducted as the district began preparing to implement a federally mandated water conservation plan that must reduce consumption and waste by 30,000 acre-feet annually beginning in January 1995."This gives us a yardstick, knowing what folks think and know about water conservation," said Karen Ricks, conservation program manager for the district.

Although the poll indicated water managers have some work to do to educate their customers about conservation, few were surprised by the results.

"Everybody is for water conservation until they find it costs something," said David Ovard, general manager of the Salt Lake County Water Conservancy District.

Water conservation has evolved drastically in the past 15 years. For most of this century, water conservation has meant building dams and tunnels to control, store and channel water for public use, primarily farming.

Water projects, however, have been replaced by a new concept for conservation: reducing human consumption of water and leaving more in the rivers and lakes for wildlife and recreation.

Water conservation will also have take on a little understood financial component, urban water managers predict.

When a water district builds a treatment plant, pumps a well or buys water from a federal project, it pays for it through the rates it charges its customers. But many districts, including Ovard's, haven't promoted water conservation in the past because it could reduce revenues a district needs to pay its bills.

Ovard said the only way to promote conservation and meet financial obligations is to raise water rates. He explained that cutting back on water will also reduce the need to build more expensive facilities, which would keep rates stable in the long term.

But according to results of the Central Utah district's poll, most people don't like the idea of using water rates as a way to cut consumption. However, a majority of those polled did like the idea of charging higher rates for those who use more water.

Ricks oversees the district's program to meet the federal conservation mandate. Congress has required Utah, the second-driest state in the nation, to implement an aggressive water conservation program as a condition to receiving funding to complete the Central Utah Project. Under the program, the federal government has authorized spending $50 million to cover 65 percent of the cost of worthwhile conservation projects.

Ricks said the district could meet the mandated annual 30,000 acre-feet savings through proposals that conserve irrigation water for farmers and don't affect urban water user rates.

"But I don't believe that was the intent of the law, and we expect to see a balance" of water-saving measures affecting farmers, homeowners and businesses, she said.

Ovard said the Central Utah district is also conducting a study to find out how responsive water use is to pricing.

But that won't make it any easier for urban water districts to tell customers in the near future to cut back on water use and pay more for water. Salt Lake City, which has some of the cheapest water in the West and is faced with replacing an aging distribution system, backed off a proposed water rate increase this year.

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Costly conservation

Selected questions from a survey conducted by Dan Jones and Associated for the Central Utah Water Conservancy District in August 1993:

Q: Generally speaking, how important is it for people in your community to conserve water:

Very important 65%

Somewhat important 30%

Not very important 3%

Not at all important 0%

Don't know 1%

Q: Have you ever been asked to conserve water by your water company?

Yes 40%

No 57%

Don't know/don't recall 3%

Q: To encourage water conservation, some water agencies charge for water on an increasing block rate basis: Customers pay one rate per gallon up to a certain number of gallons and higher rates for usage over that amount. Is this a fair way to calculate water rates:

Definitely 26%

Probably 39%

Probably not 15%

Definitely not 11%

Don't know 10%

Q: Do you favor or oppose charging higher rates for water, so people use less water:

Strongly oppose 54%

Somewhat opppose 22%

Somewhat favor 16%

Strongly favor 7%

Don't know 1%

Q: Do you favor or oppose charging more for water use in the summer that in the winter:

Strongly oppose 43%

Somewhat oppose 22%

Somewhat favor 23%

Strongly favor 8%

Don't know 4%