When a St. George homeowner turns on his sprinklers in midsummer, the water that turns green on his lawns has already traveled from mountain springs and wells through an 850-mile pipeline system.
The 50 million gallons of water used in the southwestern Utah city on a peak summer day has already been stored in one of 22 tanks and propelled by one or more of the 16 stations overpressure pumping. It was treated and distributed to homes through city water pipes.
Owner-paid utility bills for all of this infrastructure in one of the driest parts of the country, however, are modest. The water utility charges less than $ 2 for every 1,000 gallons of water city residents use to irrigate their gardens, even if a household uses tens of thousands of gallons per month.
In Moab, rates are lower, with water users paying between $ 1.13 and $ 1.88 per 1,000 gallons of water per month in midsummer, even if a single homeowner uses more than 60 000 gallons.
Utah as a whole, 88% of which currently experiences exceptional drought conditions, has the highest per capita municipal water use in the United States. Zach Frankel of Utah Rivers Council believes it’s because of the low water prices the Utahns pay.
âUtah is the second driest state in the country,â he said, âand we have the cheapest water in the United States. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.â
The low tariffs enjoyed by water users in Utah, including on the Wasatch front, are something of an anomaly in the arid West. In Phoenix, for example, water users pay a small monthly connection fee and then get their first 7,000 gallons of water for free, which is more water than typical household use for indoor needs like cooking, cleaning and showering.
But if residents are using more than 7,000 gallons – to, say, water a large green lawn – then the rates are skyrocketing. Phoenix homeowners who use more than 10,000 gallons per month pay more than $ 12 per 1,000 gallons, which is ten times more than a resident of Moab. Even rain-drenched Seattle, Washington has water rates almost three times higher than many communities in Utah.
The disparate rates likely influence the landscaping decisions made by homeowners. In Phoenix, the average resident uses 111 gallons per day, according to the most recent analysis by the US Geological Survey. In Washington County, Utah, where St. George is located, the average resident uses 306 gallons per day.
âIf you drive 90 minutes,â Frankel said, âaway from Washington County in Las Vegas – where you have the same hydrogeography, the same climate, the same patterns of water precipitation from the sky – water consumption is nearly a third of water use in Washington County.
Utahns pay lower water prices and higher property taxes
But just looking at utility bills to determine the cost paid by Utah water users is misleading. Utah’s extensive network of reservoirs, pipelines, canals, treatment facilities, and water pipes are just as expensive to build and maintain as they are in neighboring states.
Utah residents pay low water rates – “artificially low,” according to Frankel – because most of Utah’s water districts are heavily subsidized by property taxes.
When you pay taxes on a Utah home, business appraisal, or even automobile, chances are that some of that money will be used to fund water infrastructure owned by municipal suppliers or to wholesalers who sell water to cities. A 2019 report from the Utah Foundation found that 90% of Utahns live in a jurisdiction that collects property taxes for water.
The Washington County Water District, for example, a water wholesaler and retailer that supplies water to St. George, collected two-thirds of its revenue from property taxes and impact fees, according to a bulletin that he published in 2015. Only 22% of his income came from utility bills. Water wholesalers who are funded by property taxes often store, transport and treat water before selling it to municipalities at a reduced rate, allowing local water utilities to charge less on utility bills .
The Utah Rivers Council conducted a survey of the watershed districts in the western United States and found Utah to be an exception in this regard. Most of the river basin districts studied do not levy any property taxes, and those that do often use bonds that are voted on by taxpayers and expire when the debt is paid off. The property taxes that fund the vast majority of Utah’s river basin districts, by contrast, are permanent and are not subject to voter approval.
“By nature unfair”
In addition to doing little to encourage conservation, the use of property taxes to subsidize water supplies creates an “inherently unfair” situation, according to Robin Rothfeder, assistant professor of natural resource policy at Colorado State University.
As a doctoral student at the University of Utah, Rothfeder studied water use and the socioeconomic status of households in the Salt Lake City area in 2014. He and his colleagues found that in winter, when little water is used for landscaping, postal codes along the Wasatch front used quantities of water, regardless of average income level. During the summers, however, a significant gap appeared. Homeowners in the wealthiest neighborhoods used up to five times more water than those in the poorest neighborhoods.
“The richest homes use a lot more,” said Rothfeder, while “the poorest households pay a higher proportion of their total summer water costs through property taxes, compared to richer people. “.
While Utah’s river basin districts eliminated property tax subsidies and increased utility bills for larger water users by implementing a tiered pricing structure like those used in other Western cities, families in low income would benefit the most, Rothfeder said.
Plus, some of Utah’s biggest water users – churches, schools, universities, municipal golf courses, which are largely exempt from property taxes – are expected to start paying more.
Conservative groups support reform
The idea has the backing of environmentalists and politically conservative groups who support lowering taxes.
The Utah Taxpayers Association argued that removing the subsidies would help Utah better respond to drought conditions. “The total cost of water use should be contained in the prices paid by consumers,” the association argued in a July blog post, “to ensure that consumers are motivated to conserve water. in a desert state “.
The libertarian-leaning Libertas Institute made a similar point by supporting legislation backed by the Utah Rivers Council in 2017 that would have reduced the amount of tax revenue that river basin districts can collect.
âInstead of seeing the real costs on a water bill,â the think tank wrote, âthe real costs are hidden in property taxes. Consumers have little incentive to monitor their own consumption because at first glance, water seems extremely cheap. The bill failed in committee before being voted on.
Utah’s powerful water lobby argued that reducing the ability of water districts to collect taxes would limit flexibility to adapt to changing needs and could affect high grades of state bonds. Water managers have also opposed legislation that would restructure the current system, citing substantial disruptions to current tariffs.
In a summary of watershed district reports compiled by the Utah Foundation, eliminating or reducing property taxes could remove all costs of operating water for owners of undeveloped land while other users could see tariffs more than double, a sudden increase in costs that could be difficult for businesses and institutions to absorb.
But Frankel is hoping the matter will gain more attention as Lake Powell surpasses its all-time low and Utah’s population continues to grow rapidly. He also thinks reforming the system makes sense for the Utahns’ wallets. Conservation not only keeps more water in lakes and streams, Frankel said, but it cuts costs.
“The point of reducing water consumption is to save taxpayers’ money,” he said. âWhen you increase water use, you increase delivery costs; you increase the amount of treatment you need to do … you increase your operating and maintenance costs as a water supplier. Reducing water use is the key to avoiding unnecessary public spending by water districts.
Zak Podmore is a Report for America member of the Salt Lake Tribune Corps. Your matching donation to our RFA grant helps her continue to write stories like this; please consider making a tax deductible donation of any amount today by clicking here.