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A plan to charge more for Salt Lake City water during hot summer months is a bold step toward handling the most precious resource in a desert.

The City Council, scheduled to consider the rate increase Tuesday, should approve it without reservation. Meanwhile, other water providers along the Wasatch Front would be wise to consider similar rate structures.Higher rates may be just the kind of subtle prodding residents need to change their habits, and they could head off much more painful measures in the near future.

Recent population growth has underscored the need to be careful with water. Unfortunately, Utahns typically haven't demonstrated a propensity for voluntary conservation. Too many people water lawns or wash cars during the heat of the day. Other than during times of severe drought, few people feel the need to be careful.

By some estimates, Salt Lake residents use more water per capita than residents of other western desert cities. In 1993, city water customers used an average of 269 gallons per day, compared with only 239 gallons in Albuquerque and 154 in Tucson.

In short, Salt Lake residents use water like it won't be around much longer, and if they don't change their habits, it might not be.

The city's water supply serves approximately 165,000 people within city limits and another 130,000 in unincorporated areas. New homes and businesses are straining resources. Unless the people who use city water start conserving, Salt Lake officials estimate they will have to build $100 million worth of pipes, aqueducts and reservoirs by 2001. That would require a 70 percent hike in water rates.

By comparison, the increase the council is considering is minor. It would reduce by 10 cents the amount charged for each 100 cubic feet between October and May, then increase it by 11 cents over current levels from June to September. Unincorporated residents would pay slightly more.

No one can be sure whether the new rates would produce the desired effect. If people don't conserve, the city's water budget would reap a windfall. If they conserve much more than expected, the city may come up short. But it is a chance worth taking.

The difference between people in Salt Lake City and those in Albuquerque and Tucson is that Salt Lakers still insist on keeping lush, green lawns. Many residents of the other cities have learned to accept natural desert landscapes instead. Those who still have grass have found ways to avoid watering as often as before.

To help its users understand how to conserve, the city is planning to send a watering guide along with its bills.

Habits are difficult to change. But unless Utahns want to pay much more for their water in coming years, they had better support the types of rate changes that help them remember to change.