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Independent analysis gives mixed review on Utah's water data accuracy

SALT LAKE CITY — Guesswork in how much secondary water is being used and system loss from "well to tap" are significant challenges Utah's water managers need to address to get a better idea of both the state's consumption and projected need for water.

Those conclusions are among many derived from a third-party analysis released Wednesday and presented to members of the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environmental Quality Appropriations Subcommittee.

The analysis was released immediately following a presentation by James Behunin, with the Office of Legislative Auditor General, who noted in an audit update that Utah's water managers have made a number of improvements in tracking consumption, but work remains.

Most notably, Behunin urged the state to strongly consider implementing a requirement for universal metering on all new secondary water systems coming online if they are of a certain size.

"All water systems ought to have meters. Consider setting a date with a certain amount of connections," Behunin said, noting that could be 10 to 15 years out to account for expense and a systemwide transformation.

Behunin noted that if 100 percent of the water a person uses in a secondary system is priced at a flat rate — with no available measurement of how much is used — it delivers the wrong message in a state trying to conserve water.

"We are not sure that creates the right incentives," he said.

The auditor stressed, too, that there is a large amount of "unaccounted" water that is lost as it goes through the system to the point of delivery.

"Unaccounted water is a significant issue," Behunin said, pointing to a system loss in Spanish Fork that was at 34 percent until managers acted aggressively to reduce that number to 16 percent.

There has been a signficant "culture change" among water providers and managers of delivery systems since Utah's water use first drew greater emphasis in an issue broached in 2014 by then-House Speaker Becky Lockhart, he said.

"We are pleased to tell you this is a positive story we have to tell," Behunin said, with most major recommendations to improve data accuracy already in place.

The independent analysis, performed by Bowen Collins & Associates and Hansen, Allen and Luce, found state tracking of drinking water in good shape, with few discrepancies pointing to inaccuracies.

Greater problems were found with secondary water usage, with analysts concluding use could be underestimated anywhere from 25 percent to 35 percent.

Those types of numbers make analysis of consumption and projected water needs in the future problematic, they stressed.

Presenters during the Wednesday committee meeting said they made an extensive examination of the three largest water providers in the state to drill down into more data, looking specifically at Jordan Valley, the Metropolitan District of Salt Lake and Sandy, and the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District. They recommended continued emphasis on those large systems to more accurately characterize municipal and industrial use.

In addition, about 18 percent of the 500 systems in the state are using about 88 percent of the secondary water, the majority along the Wasatch Front, according to the presentation.