close
Salt lake city government

Bill changing how Utahns pay for water stalls in legislature

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that would have dramatically changed how Utahns pay for water will not progress through the state legislature this year.

On Wednesday, Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee Chairman Dan McCay withdrew his bill, telling an interim committee “there will be reshuffles.”

The bill was seen as a way to help address the decline of the Great Salt Lake and the ongoing statewide drought.. He had won support from taxpayer watchdogs, environmentalists and some members of the public. But he faces pressure from local water districtswho wield considerable political influence on Utah’s Capitol Hill.

“It’s a big boost. It’s a tough problem. It’s been ingrained for generations to be taxed this way. It should come as no surprise to anyone that it’s going to take more than pulling the tape off,” said Senator McCay, R-Riverton, told FOX 13 News afterwards.

Right now, people get a monthly water bill. But the vast majority of their water consumption is covered by property taxes. Some institutions like schools, churches, and government-owned golf courses pay no property taxes at all. Environmentalists have argued that this leads to overconsumption of water and excessive collection of taxes.

Senator McCay introduced a bill to move to a rate-based system. He argued it could force water conservation once Utahans see the “true cost” of water.

“Everyone recognizes the need to do much more for conservation in order to preserve the [Great Salt] Lake, for the long-term viability of Utah’s economy,” Senator McCay said. “We have to provide water for all these uses.

Local water districts and municipal governments have expressed serious concerns about the proposed legislation. They argued that changing the property tax formula could hurt their ability to pay for critical water infrastructure projects designed to ensure public health and safety. These projects can cost millions. (One of Utah’s largest nonprofit landowners, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, did not take a position on the bill.)

Senator McCay said he finally agreed to commission a study to address everyone’s concerns. Speaking on behalf of Utah’s largest water districts, Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District General Manager Bart Forsyth said it was a good decision.

“This study makes a lot of sense, from my point of view. It is a study that is long overdue,” he testified before the committee. “This is something that has been needed for some time. We support the continuation of a study of this nature and we welcome it.”

Zach Frankel, director of the Utah Rivers Council, said he was disappointed.

“Utah’s water conservation districts collect property taxes at three times the rate of water districts outside of Utah,” he said, pointing to a study his group has done on the issue. “This special interest has become too important.”

In public testimony, some were upset that the bill would not go ahead.

“It’s time to act, not to study further,” said Joan Gregory. “It could have been part of the solution to protect the Great Salt Lake.”

Annie Payne told the committee that the bill would have solved a number of problems.

“If you end water subsidies, you’re largely reducing your two most pressing problems: you’ll provide tax relief to homeowners at a critical time, and you’ll pump more water into the Colorado River and Great Lake. Salty,” she said.

Senator McCay said the bill would come back – but not in the next legislative session.

This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that brings together news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake and what that can be done to make a difference before it’s too late. Read all of our stories at greatsaltlakenews.org.

Mary Cashion

The author Mary Cashion