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Guest opinion: This is how Utah survives the drought — now and in the future

A mountain biker rides up City Creek Canyon in Salt Lake City.
A mountain biker rides up City Creek Canyon in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 26, 2021. One hundred percent of Utah is in drought with 90% of the state in extreme drought.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

You’ve seen the photos of low water levels and heard the warnings to reduce water use, and it’s true: this year is one of the worst drought seasons Utah has seen in recorded history. An immediate change in behavior is necessary for this summer, and now more than ever, we can agree that everyone must consider reducing how much water we use. Our current consumption rate is unsustainable.

This effort starts outside, where we use most of our water. Each region of the state has suggested watering guidelines, including time-of-day and frequency recommendations. We all can do our part in prioritizing tree and shrub irrigation and installing smart controllers. Those making changes to their yards should switch to more drought-resilient landscaping, taking advantage of statewide rebate programs. You can find the best resources about what you can do by visiting slowtheflow.org.

While any reductions in water use will help us respond to current drought conditions, it is essential that we consider how to effectively plan for future water needs. Adopting effective long-term water conservation practices will stretch existing supplies and provide greater resiliency to drought, but there is no silver bullet to solve future water supply concerns. Ensuring access to safe, reliable water will require many participants and several methods.

Emergencies like the drought we’re experiencing today require immediate action. As water experts, we caution against losing best practices to respond to short-term emergencies. For example, inaccuracies about how to pay for water risk the stability of future water supply. Because water projects often incur costs decades before the first customer receives water, Utah has established three essential funding tools to secure water for future generations without putting the financial burden on one group of users. This solid “three-legged stool” of water rates, impact fees and property taxes has proven to be successful in supporting the population and economic growth in the state for many decades.

Water rates cover the cost of current water use, and those rates are going up as the cost to maintain our current water infrastructure goes up. Impact fees allow new users to pay their share of the water system costs. Property tax is the bridge between these user groups.

Property tax provides a stable revenue source to support bonding for new water supplies being developed but not yet in use, allowing future users to help pay the capital costs of infrastructure that will benefit them. Without this stable funding, significant rate increases would be required without adding services or facilities. Nonprofits and residents would see the highest rate increases, while those with higher value properties, such as warehouses or retail stores, would pay less.

If you define the cost of water as only paying for the water coming to your tap, you are leaving out some of the most essential public services that support life, safety and prosperity for people and the environment. That includes things not measured through a meter like fire protection, flood control, endangered species protection, conservation programs, groundwater protection and recreational opportunities. The public value of water is best paid for by sharing the cost among property owners of the communities that benefit today and will benefit in the future from those public services. But for property tax, large storage reservoirs that are providing water this year in this critical drought would not exist.

Water is not a commodity like wheat, copper or natural gas. Water is a natural resource necessary for human survival. There is no replacement for water and failure to reliably provide this essential resource is not an option. Unlike other infrastructure, water cannot be managed solely by market principles. It requires sophisticated funding models to ensure stability and equity.

A multipronged approach is the answer to ensuring Utah’s long-term water supply, which means more tools in the toolbox, not fewer. As we face the drought of 2021, let’s take action now to reduce our use and work together for a more secure water future.

Tage Flint is the general manager of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District. Bart Forsyth is the general manager of the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District. Zach Renstrom is the general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District. Gene Shawcroft is the general manager of the Central Utah Water Conservancy District.