When it comes to irrigation water conservation, a one-size-fits-all water metering mandate, as set out in HB242, doesn’t make sense for small water districts that provide both pressurized irrigation and culinary water.

In many of these districts, irrigation water actually plays a critical role in replenishing the aquifer that their culinary wells draw from. In addition, the mandate doesn’t factor in the adverse effects that it has on the people who have paid to build and maintain the irrigation water systems over the past 50 years, on urban “heat islands” and on vegetation that reduces carbon dioxide levels.

Engineering studies have shown that in water districts where much of the soil consists of sand and gravel as much as 40% of aquifer recharge is due to irrigation water. So, water managers have to balance the need for conservation with the need to maintain the culinary aquifer. Unfortunately, the Legislature’s proposed mandate doesn’t acknowledge this.

In addition, the majority of the smaller, “affordable” homes in the district I reside in were built in the 1950s and ’60s. They have fully landscaped yards with mature trees, shrubs, fruit trees and garden plots that contribute to the physical health and mental well-being of seniors who keep active by working in their yards.

During the COVID-19 lockdowns when schools and public parks were closed, these yards provided safe spaces for neighborhood children to socialize. In addition, in my area these irrigated yards mitigate the urban “heat island” effect while the trees and other vegetation absorb carbon dioxide. But the mandate ignores all of this.

If the small district providing my irrigation water is required to install water meters, it may be forced to charge more for irrigation water than for culinary water, since the cost to install and maintain meters on aging galvanized lines in fully landscaped backyards will be in the range of $2,000 each. Even with grant money covering 50% to 70% of the installation cost, irrigation water fees will have to increase substantially — and that doesn’t include the cost of maintaining and reading the meters. And under the mandate, the only thing the meters will do is encourage people to voluntarily use less water since people will not be charged based on water used.

Given this, some people may resort to using culinary water for irrigation purposes rather than installing meters. Should that occur it would seriously stress the culinary aquifers and could eventually result in a system collapse.

Another factor to consider is that in some areas where irrigation water consumption has dropped by 30%, homes are sinking as the water table drops and the ground subsides under them. It is not known if the water table is falling due to water conservation, the drought, a combination of the two or some other unknown factor(s). However, there were no similar problems during past droughts.

Furthermore, many of the state’s water districts have aging, leaky irrigation and culinary water pipes and so it makes more sense to use the money required to install the mandated meters to deal with these issues. Sadly, they can’t afford to do both.

Finally, there are far more frugal, less authoritarian ways to achieve water conservation and, even more importantly, to balance irrigation water usage with the health of culinary aquifers. For example, one district sharply reduced usage by spending less than $2,000 to mail out postcards asking its customers to reduce irrigation water consumption.

That district could continue to mail postcards for the next 2,000 years for the cost of installing water meters that wouldn’t give any better results. In addition, xeriscaping of existing properties, large lots being converted into high density housing that don’t use irrigation water and other initiatives will continue to reduce irrigation water consumption.

In sum, just like federal mandates, state mandates are costly, they frequently impact those least able to pay and they override elected representatives who are charged with balancing the use of irrigation water with the preservation of culinary aquifers. It’s important to remember that Utah is not Washington, D.C., and mandates are not the Utah way.

As one legislator recently said, “Doing something for the sake of doing something is not a good enough justification for a government mandate.”

Ronald Mortensen, Ph.D., is a retired foreign service officer and a resident of Bountiful.