By Dan Schroeder, Ogden Group Conservation Chair
The urban communities of the Wasatch Front are built upon a semi-desert, where the native plants included sagebrush and greasewood—not tomatoes or Kentucky bluegrass. Massive engineering projects, built over a century and a half, have captured snowmelt from the mountains, stored the water through summers and autumns, and brought it to nearly every corner of the once-dry valleys.
New 5-million-gallon water tank under construction in the Ogden foothills.
While we usually take our convenient water supply for granted, we can’t completely forget our water infrastructure and its cost. Nobody can ignore the dams and reservoirs that flood many of our mountain valleys. Foothill trail users notice increasing numbers of water storage tanks in once-natural areas. And of course, most of us pay a monthly water bill, plus water-related line items on our annual property taxes.
By national standards, Utah’s water bills are unusually low. This is mostly due to the proximity of our cities to the mountains with their relatively clean snowmelt, resulting in low costs for both transmission and treatment. However, low water prices have encouraged Utahns to develop wasteful habits. Our typical suburban landscaping looks more like Philadelphia than Phoenix. Even for this incongruous style of landscaping, the Division of Water Resources estimates that the average Utahn over-waters by 20 percent.
Utah cities typically charge much less for water than their counterparts in nearby states. This graph compares rates for residents using more than 25,000 gallons during a summer month—a typical amount for those who irrigate with culinary water.
Wasting water hurts our rivers, wetlands, and wildlife. As demand for water along the Wasatch Front is projected to grow, water managers are now eyeing the Bear River as the nearest major source of “undeveloped” water. New dams and diversions are planned that would reduce the flow into the Bear River Bird Refuge and the Great Salt Lake.
Wasting water also raises water costs for everyone. As cities tap into more distant, and more expensive, water sources, their average cost to supply a gallon of water goes up. This cost is then passed on to all water customers—not just the biggest water users.
For all the talk you hear of free enterprise and individual responsibility, much of Utah’s way of life is actually founded on socialism. Our water systems are a case in point. The major reservoirs and pipelines were built mostly with federal tax dollars, and the State Legislature wants to subsidize further expansions. Ultimately, most of these costs are passed on to the citizens through taxes and flat fees, regardless of how much (or how little) water they use.
Despite our low per-gallon rates, Utahns tend to pay relatively high monthly base rates that are independent of the amount of water used. These base rates provide no incentive to conserve water. In addition, many Utahns subsidize water districts through their property taxes (not included in the graph).
Despite Utah’s low per-gallon water fees, our minimum monthly water bills (“base rates”), which customers pay whether they use any water or not, tend to be on the high side. Ogden City, which just raised its residential monthly base rate to $17.50, actually receives more revenue from residential base rates than from residential per-gallon fees. This kind of fee structure provides relatively little incentive to conserve water, since your bill can’t drop below $17.50 no matter how little water you use.
City officials justify these high base rates in terms of so-called “fixed costs.” It works like this:
- Increasing water use prompts an engineering study of future water infrastructure needs;
- Engineers plan for the worst case, in which water use continues to rise rapidly;
- The city invests in new water sources, transmission lines, and storage reservoirs, paying for these facilities with bonded debt;
- The debt service on these facilities then becomes a “fixed cost” which the city must pay even if water use decreases;
- Therefore the city covers most of the cost with flat fees, and otherwise discourages water conservation to keep revenues high;
- Residents oblige by increasing their water use further;
- This cycle repeats until new water sources become prohibitively expensive.
Remarkably, despite this vicious cycle, much of Utah has decreased its per-capita water use over the last two decades. Salt Lake City’s conservation programs have been especially effective. But these gains were not accomplished solely through public education: Salt Lake City’s per-gallon water rates are relatively high by Utah standards.
By far the biggest disincentive to water conservation is the availability of unmetered secondary water in many of Utah’s cities and suburbs. Secondary water systems are almost unheard of in other states, but a surprising number of Utah homeowners think of unmetered irrigation water as a fundamental right. We typically pay a flat fee for this water on our property tax bills, whether we use the water or not. Those who conserve inevitably subsidize those who waste.
Due to the prevalence of unmetered secondary water systems, Weber and Davis Counties use nearly 80 percent more water per capita than Salt Lake County. It should be no surprise, therefore, that the Bear River development plans call for a large portion of the diverted water to go to the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District—the biggest water supplier in both counties.
Eventually, of course, there will come a time when everyone in Utah realizes that it costs less to conserve water than to keep diverting it from ever more distant sources. Then we will surely begin metering our secondary water and otherwise adjust water pricing to encourage conservation—as many of our neighboring states have done. The sooner we make this adjustment, the more of our rivers and wetlands we can save.
(This article originally appeared in the Summer 2012 Ogden Sierra Club newsletter.)