SALT LAKE CITY — Remember all that snow last winter? Remember how rainy it seemed to be in the spring, right on through June?

Well, that was before bone-dry August.

The Escalante River may be as good an illustration as any of how fickle the weather can be in the interior West. According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the river still stands at 124% of normal precipitation for the entire water year, but only 19% so far in September.

In Utah, you’re either dying of thirst, metaphorically, or you’re drowning. But mostly, you’re dying of thirst.

All of which means you should be paying more for the water you use. Probably a lot more.

The Utah Foundation, an independent, nonprofit research group, is in the middle of a three-part series of reports on water costs and conservation in the state. The latest one contains this bit of wisdom, which ought to be self-evident:

“Utah ranks among both the driest and fastest-growing states in the nation. It is therefore essential that Utah’s water is well-managed to ensure the sufficiency of affordable quality of water into the future.”

That means we need to use less of it. 

Governments have two options to make this happen. They can begin charging people more to use it. As the report says: “It is a well-established economic principle that the more an individual pays for a product, the less that individual will tend to use it.”

Or they can institute a public shaming program. California did this awhile back when a drought there became severe. Utah has a similar version in place. You can go to the “fame or shame” website and either rat someone out or offer praise. 

Typically, governments prefer the shaming route. It’s easier than fielding complaints from people whose water bills suddenly jumped an octave or two. 

Some reports say California had some limited success with this, but with unintended consequences. Back in 2014, L.A. Times editorial writer Kerry Cavanaugh called this the “Hatfields and McCoys problem.”

“By encouraging people to rat out their neighbors, water agencies might be creating or fueling neighborhood feuds,” she wrote. 

The New York Times, she said, found evidence that “in Santa Cruz, some complainers appeared to be using the anonymous reporting system to indulge old grudges.” Don’t like your neighbor? Report every little drop you see spilling onto their concrete driveway.

Economic incentives are so much easier.

The Utah Foundation report suggests a steeply tiered system — in which homeowners are charged a small amount up to a certain point, then much more after that — would result in long-term conservation success. 

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Water today is kind of like oil was in the early 1970s, the report said. When the oil embargo hit, it put a lot of folks in a bind. People used oil to heat their homes and fuel their cars. Initially they adjusted thermostats or cut back on summer road trips. Eventually, however, builders made houses that were better insulated and that were heated with something other than oil. Cars became more fuel-efficient.

As water becomes more expensive, people would turn to more water-efficient appliances, bathroom fixtures and sprinklers. Average usage would decline considerably over time.

Sure, water districts in Utah already have tiered pricing structures, but the report references much more dramatic tiers, with bigger penalties for excessive use. It also discusses what might happen if water districts, and especially water providers, were not so reliant on property taxes.

Answers there become complicated and, if you’ll pardon the pun, a little dry.

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It’s hard to get a real handle on how well Utah already does with conservation. As the Utah Geological Survey’s website says, it all depends on how you measure it, and the accuracy of measurements changes from state to state. 

For example, when it comes to the overall number of gallons consumed per person, per day, the state finishes 12th. But even that isn’t clear cut, because Utah uses some water to help generate electricity it sells to California. California, in turn, uses water to grow crops it sells to Utah.

If you look at only domestic water use, Utah finishes second to Idaho in the amount consumed per person.

Regardless, you don’t need the IQ of a genius to understand that water is precious in a fast-growing arid desert where rain is less reliable than a politician’s promises. If we all want to keep using, we’re going to need to pay more for what we use. 

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