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In our opinion: Let’s face it, Utahns should pay more for water

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FILE - USU water check specialist Tanner Smith conduct a water check at Brickyard Condominiums in Salt Lake City Tuesday, June 14, 2016.

USU water check specialist Tanner Smith conducts a water check at Brickyard Condominiums in Salt Lake City Tuesday, June 14, 2016.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

At a time when water seems plentiful and snowpack abundant, it may seem odd to worry about how Utah’s water supply will keep up with the increasing demand of relentless growth. But water is a perpetual problem in the arid West, and Utah’s leaders would be derelict if they were not thinking about it now and always.

And while they’re thinking about it, they need to, once and for all, recommend the state remove most, if not all, public subsidies to water districts. Only when Utahns begin paying the true cost of providing water, through higher rates, will they begin to conserve it in ways that are meaningful.

Last week, state and local government leaders, developers and nonprofit organizations met as part of Utah State University’s Research Landscapes series to talk about water. There, the problem was defined well.

Utah is one of the nation’s fastest-growing states. The Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah has predicted the population will double from its current 3.2 million by 2065. At the same time, a long-term warming trend is diminishing the snowpack in the state’s mountains, and, as experts said, the era of dam building in the state is over. It’s time for new strategies.

Given how studies have shownUtahns consume about 242 gallons of water per day per person (excluding agricultural uses), the next logical step is to encourage conservation.

A long-term warming trend is diminishing the snowpack in the state’s mountains, and, as experts said, the era of dam building in the state is over. It’s time for new strategies.

And the best way to do that is through financial incentives, not through public service announcements or, as has been popular in the recent past, public shaming.

In Utah, much of the price of water is absorbed through property tax subsidies. This helps to allow the state to have among the nation’s lowest water rates. Simple economics makes it clear that the less something costs, the more it will be consumed. And the more water Utahns consume, the more they will have to pay for expensive water projects to keep feeding the demand.

But aggressive, graduated water rates, in which water is inexpensive up to a certain threshold, then much more expensive thereafter, would incentivize people to use less.

In the most recent legislative session, a bill (SB214) was proposed that would have limited a water conservancy district’s property tax subsidies, in most cases, to no more than 15 percent of total revenues. But the bill was changed significantly before passage, requiring instead that water districts only provide a report to the Legislature, breaking down their revenue sources for the fiscal year ending in 2018.

This was not the first time such a bill had failed.

This inability to muster the political strength to tackle the problem of water subsidies remains a huge inhibitor that ultimately could limit the state’s growth.

Meanwhile, the state also should consider greater incentives to help agricultural interests convert to more efficient piping and sprinklers, and to schedule irrigation on days when it would be most effective.

The problem may not be so apparent this year, coming off a winter with near record snowpack and plentiful rain. But if Utahns can count on one thing, it is that they live in an arid region where water never will be plentiful for long.