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My view: The solution to Utah's water problems

Twilight over Lake Powell in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
Twilight over Lake Powell in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
Adobe stock photo

There are many new and innovative ways to solve our water problems. Some of the most creative approaches not only help increase supply, but also increase individual freedom by allowing each homeowner to voluntarily choose more efficient water use. This can be done by four simple reforms to state water policy.

First, eliminate using property taxes to subsidize water districts, and fund all water use with direct fees. The property tax subsidy destroys the incentive to be water-efficient; no matter how much water one uses, the tax remains the same. This means that you and your neighbor pay the same water rate even if you are very careful with your water use but your neighbor uses extravagant amounts. A water fee means that you only have to pay for the water you use. If you want to use a lot, you are free to do so but you can’t get your neighbors to pay for it. Nearly two-thirds of the water districts in the West use straight fees; research indicates that such fee structures incentivize individuals to use water more efficiently.

Second, the state should establish a water fixture replacement program that assists homeowners, businesses and public institutions in switching to water-wise fixtures. Many cities have established such voluntary programs with great success. For example, the city of Denver has about 20 rebate programs that help people install high-efficiency toilets, irrigations controllers, and other water-saving devices. One of their programs replaced 10,000 toilets in public schools. Denver water officials hope to save about 40,000 acre-feet of water with these innovative and cost-effective rebate programs.

Third, the state should institute a voluntary turf buy-back program, which pays homeowners to replace or reduce the amount of water-intensive turf grass on their property. The city of Los Angeles has a “cash for grass” turf program that was so successful people had to wait in line to participate. Las Vegas instituted such a program and eliminated half of all lawn space — all of it from individuals who voluntarily chose to participate in turf buy-back.

Fourth, the state should fund a comprehensive program to help homeowners purchase rain barrels. Installing rain barrels under each downspout is by far the cheapest form of water storage; it costs a tiny fraction of the cost to build expensive dams and pipelines. Salt Lake County, Murray, Sandy and Park City already have rain barrel programs. Like the other water freedoms, this program is entirely voluntary. If enough people participate, such a program would eliminate at least some of the need for expensive new water projects.

What is the alternative to these freedom-enhancing choices? The largest water districts in the state have made the dubious claim that they need $35 billion to build massive new water projects (a claim disputed by many). Paying for these projects will require either a tax increase — mandatory for all of us — or diverting money from other existing uses. Also, some of these proposed projects create enormous environmental problems; for example, the Bear River dam and pipeline proposal will lower the Great Salt Lake — already at record low levels — and reduce water flowing into the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge.

Before we spend such huge amounts of the taxpayers’ money, would it not be prudent to first implement these four water freedoms so that individuals can choose to participate in a widespread effort to solve our water problems, and possibly eliminate the need for more huge government projects that burden the taxpayer?

Daniel McCool is a political science professor at the University of Utah.