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In our opinion: Legislators need to better evaluate Utah's water

FILE: Water levels remain low at Jordanelle State Park Tuesday, May 5, 2015. Projections of Utah's water needs have been made for the Legislative Audit Committee.
FILE: Water levels remain low at Jordanelle State Park Tuesday, May 5, 2015. Projections of Utah's water needs have been made for the Legislative Audit Committee.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

It’s hardly a surprise that water scarcity is an issue in a state that, coincidentally, is the second driest in the nation (behind Nevada) and has the seventh fastest population growth. But as Utah lawmakers begin to grapple with the state’s needs amid a prolonged drought, two principles ought to be front and center.

The first is that per capita water consumption in the state will be reduced best through economic incentives, not through public threats or exhortations, and that such incentives will be most effective when consumers pay the actual cost of water.

The second is that reliable data regarding usage and needs is a necessity when assessing proposals and making expensive long-term decisions.

Utah lawmakers currently are debating SB80, a bill that would earmark a portion of sales tax revenue to help build certain water projects. That bill is premature, given the lack of real data.

Earmarks, in general, are a bad idea. They keep lawmakers from making important fiscal decisions and priorities for the people who elected them. In this case, the sales tax revenue currently is earmarked for transportation projects. It would be diverted to water projects for one year. This is a big decision, but it can’t be made intelligently so long as Utah has no idea about its water needs.

Last May, an audit performed by the Office of the Legislative Auditor General found that data being used to predict future water supplies in the state is flawed. Auditors said the state’s 468 public water systems generated “significant” inaccuracies and faulty estimates.

The report highlighted one instance in which a city’s water use reportedly doubled from 2012 to 2013. In another city, the public works director acknowledged all data prior to 2009 was flawed, making it difficult to get a handle on trends.

A recent report from the United States Geological Survey found that Utahns use more water per capita than the residents of any other state. The proposed diversion of state sales tax funds would help construct a Lake Powell pipeline for the growing St. George area and a Bear River project, but without adequate data and serious efforts at water conservation, it’s unclear whether these projects are needed.

The audit pointed to low water rates and a lack of metering for secondary water supplies as reasons for the state’s high level of consumption. In addition to this, state lawmakers no longer can overlook the fact that property tax subsidies to water districts keep consumers from paying the true costs of water.

Only when faced with actual costs will people begin to voluntarily curb their over-consumption. Nearly all water districts employ some form of graduated pricing, charging consumer more as their usage increases. What Utah needs, however, is a far more aggressive graduated scale based on water’s real costs. Water should remain reasonable for a household’s basic monthly cooking and hygienic needs, then ratchet up quickly beyond that point.

California water districts have shown that public service announcements and social media shaming campaigns do little, other than harm neighborhood relations. Economic incentives, however, change behavior.

Absent real conservation, the long-term effects of a prolonged drought can devastate local economies. Utah lawmakers should turn their attention to removing water subsidies and gathering accurate data first before evaluating whether expensive new projects are needed.

With millions more people expected to occupy the state during this century, the water decisions made today are of utmost importance to the state’s future.