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Cheap water may be about to end in Utah

Sweeping legislation would meter all secondary water connections, boost conservation and cost a bundle — and there’s the rub.

By Leia Larsen | Feb. 22, 2022, 7:00 a.m. | Updated: Feb. 23, 2022, 2:58 p.m.

Utah lawmakers are on the verge of adopting an aggressive water policy they say could fill the equivalent of another Jordanelle Reservoir. It’s so sweeping and far-reaching, in fact, that it won’t benefit just one city, county or water district — it could free up more water in nearly every corner of the state and mark an end to cheap, unfettered outdoor watering. The plan is beyond ambitious, so much so that some water providers worry it can’t be done. Indeed, HB242 appears to be the talk of every water advocate, irrigation district and water provider in the state this legislative session. The bill would require all secondary water connections to have a meter by 2030 — and those connections currently reach about a quarter of a million homes, businesses and other secondary customers across Utah. If the legislation becomes law, it would give districts tools to charge higher rates for overuse. “We live in the second-most arid state in the union,” the measure’s sponsor, Rep. Val Peterson, R-Orem, said at a committee hearing earlier this month. “And right now, we’ve been experiencing one of the largest generational droughts in our history. When you think about that, think about how important every drop of water is. The bill passed with overwhelming support in the House in a 58-14 vote — despite its hefty price tag of around $250 million and the severe penalties it imposes on noncompliant water districts. It is now before the Senate, where chamber President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said the proposal enjoys “broad-based support.” Water managers say drastic investment is necessary as a decades-long drought chokes the state, contributing to a shrinking Great Salt Lake up north and projections that water supplies will shrivel up in the next decade down south. “For the last year and a half, I’ve done very little else besides worry about water,” Brian Steed, executive director the Department of Natural Resources, told lawmakers this month. “As the state has grown and as supplies have dwindled, we find ourselves in a very uncomfortable position to where we’re projecting increased growth and we’re not projecting increased amounts of water.” Pros and cons of secondary water For older, urban areas, secondary water might be an unusual concept. But in many of the state’s suburbs, it’s part of daily life, at least in the warmer months. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation introduced the system to Utah’s booming subdivisions during the postwar 1950s. It borrows the idea from agriculture, which pulls water directly from rivers or reservoirs and funnels it for irrigating through pipes or canals. Instead of sending that untreated water to farms, secondary systems pipe it to cities and towns for use on the landscape. To those water-providing utilities, the benefits of a secondary system were clear. “At the time, the culinary water was so much more expensive than just pulling water off a river and pushing it out to residents to irrigate lawns and gardens,” said Scott Paxman, general manager and CEO of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, which, he confirmed, has one of the nation’s largest secondary systems. (Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) East Canyon Reservoir, pictured on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022, is part of the Weber Basin water system, which has one of the largest secondary water systems in the nation. Utah households use about 60% of their annual water consumption outdoors. Directing loads of money and energy to treat that water only for it to be dumped on Kentucky bluegrass didn’t make much sense. Today, Weber and Davis counties alone have around 150,000 secondary water connections, Paxman said, served by myriad small irrigation companies. “It just kind of exploded,” Paxman said. “[The federal government] felt like secondary water was a great benefit, so they kept expanding and expanding.” There was a big problem, though. Untreated river water is full of sediment, vegetal gunk and other debris that jam up traditional meters used for drinking water. So the secondary systems went in without meters, meaning users never quite knew how much water they tapped. Or if their irrigation systems had leaks. And there was no incentive for consumers to conserve. (Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Extensive development goes up around Jordanelle State Park reservoir on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021, as the water line continues to recede in extreme drought conditions. Because providers had no way of knowing the volume of water their secondary customers consume, they set a flat annual fee households pay either through a utility bill or property tax. The fee can be as low as $100 and as high as $400 in the Weber Basin area, depending on the size of the lot and its location. But the average rate is about $250 per customer, Paxman said, no matter how much or how little they use. “I don’t think there’s any [disputing] the need for accountability,” Paxman said. Technology has since caught up. Weber Basin Water tested a number of meters that can handle untreated water in 2008, then ramped up installation in 2010. Still, even after an assertive program, the district has managed to put only 12,000 meters in the ground over 11 years. (Weber Basin Water directly provides water to about 23,000 secondary connections, and sells wholesale water to other cities and districts with their own connections.) HB242 wants an estimated 221,000 unmetered connections to come on line across Utah in just eight years. “It’s going to be a horrific, historic effort to get all the meters installed,” Paxman said, “and a lot of money spent to do so.” Metering means big water savings Paxman said he backs the bill. With new data flowing in about secondary water use, Weber Basin Water has found that simply providing its customers with information about their consumption habits — without raising rates — has resulted in significant conservation. In 2021, for example, the district analyzed water use in the Uintah Bench, a residential area of about 5,000 homes nestled between South Ogden and Uintah. Data shows that over a 10-year period, metered households used about half as much water as unmetered ones. And in the severe dry spell between 2018 and 2021, metered residences used about 64% less. The district has conducted similar studies that show drastic reductions in other neighborhoods, including South Ogden. “As soon as meters are in the ground,” Paxman said, “we’re seeing 20% to 40% savings in the first year.” ‘It’s going to be a nightmare’ The biggest disadvantage to secondary metering is the expense. Installing a meter costs as much as $2,000 per home, and that doesn’t include setting up radio signals, software and other technology to collect and process the data. The price tag and shear scale of HB242′s demands have many smaller districts in a near panic. “It’s going to be a nightmare,” warned Jake Ferguson, general manager of South Davis Water District. While all the water managers interviewed for this story said they support conservation, metering and the sentiment behind the bill, most said HB242 is not feasible. Ferguson’s district is relatively small, with barely 2,000 secondary connections, but he figures it will cost upward of $4 million to install meters. And while many newer subdivisions have secondary systems districts can tap from the streets, most of the connections in the older neighborhoods South Davis Water serves are in backyards, which could boost costs. (Salt Lake Tribune file) Weber Basin Water installs a secondary meter in 2018. “We’re going to have trees, roots, gardens in the way,” Ferguson said. “We’ve considered just running all new mains out to the street, but the price tag would be astronomical if we did that. And there’s no way we could finish in time.” HB242 does address the immense investment its metering demands. It would use $250 million in one-time funds from the federal American Rescue Plan Act to offer grants to water districts, covering up to 70% of their costs for the first two years. After that, the grants drop by 10 percentage points each year, covering up to 10% of a district’s costs by 2030. Still, Kirk Gough, general manager of Bountiful Irrigation, called the deadlines imposed by the bill “unreachable.” “Even funding-wise, it’s next to impossible to meet,” he said. “Our district doesn’t have that kind of budget.” Bountiful Irrigation has about 10,000 secondary connections but only nine employees. Like most water districts, including the larger ones, it will need to rely on contractors. And many district managers said they fear a bidding war as each district competes for state funds. Those concerns are compounded by the labor and supply shortages brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. “Right now, we can’t get the meters we’ve had ordered for six months,” said Ben Quick, manager of Pineview Water Systems, which serves customers in Weber and Box Elder counties. An increase in water rates? Pineview Water had a goal of installing meters on all 28,000 of its secondary connections by 2045 and began that effort in 2017. To date, the district has installed 1,300. With an amped-up timeline imposed by the state, Quick said he will likely need to increase water rates. “Which is kind of defeating one of the purposes of secondary water,” he added, “having an affordable source of water for irrigation.” (Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pineview Reservoir, pictured on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022, is part of the Weber Basin water system, which has one of the largest secondary water systems in the nation. Bathtub rings are visible due to its low elevation, even with a recent dusting of snow. Meters also tend to malfunction, freeze and crack, water managers said. Even when a manufacturer’s warranty covers those issues, it still takes valuable staff hours to replace broken meters. Beyond the deadlines and expense, Quick worries about the penalties under HB242. If a district doesn’t meet the 2030 deadline, the state could impose a $10 fine per secondary connection. The fine rises $10 per year to a whopping $50 per connection by 2034. “[The bill] says ‘each’ secondary water connection,” Quick said. “It doesn’t say ‘each secondary connection that isn’t metered.’” Managers are further irked that the measure limits the amount they can raise water bills to cover costs. The bill sets a cap at 10% per year unless districts provide customers a “a statement explaining the basis for why the needs of the secondary water supplier required an increase in rates.” With dwindling water supplies, aging infrastructure and such a massive metering project looming, most providers agree the days of Utahns’ cheap, unrestrained outdoor watering are coming to an end. “Absolutely,” Paxman said. “The increased cost of secondary water is inevitable.” ‘A heavy lift statewide,’ including southern Utah Utah does have a couple of case studies showing a secondary metering system can be installed on an ambitious timeline. Saratoga Springs managed to install meters on its 9,500 secondary connections over two years, from 2014 to 2015, at a cost of $3.5 million. It then added a fixed radio system between 2017-2018 that could beam hourly data to customers and water managers. “This is going to be a heavy lift statewide,” City Manager Mark Christensen said. “We had to get pretty aggressive and creative to get six contractors to come in over one summer.” (Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Causey Reservoir, pictured on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022, is part of the Weber Basin water system, which has one of the largest secondary water systems in the nation. In southern Utah, Toquerville managed to install meters on all of its secondary connections between 2016 and 2017. But that system has just 400 connections. It also has a pristine source of water — Toquerville Springs ˆ which is not the case for much of the rest of the region. “Our water changes rapidly,” said Zach Renstrom, general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District. “One day it’s clear and pristine, then we’ll get a monsoon, and it looks like chocolate milk.” All that silt, sediment and turbidity are more likely to gum up a meter’s moving parts, making it harder for southern water districts to get guarantees from companies, Renstrom said. Still, he said the district supports HB242, calling it a “big step forward” for Utah. “Even though we live in southern Utah, I realize this will be good in other areas of the state,” he said. “We also share water. ... Any water we save anywhere in the system is a good thing.” — Tribune reporter Bethany Rodgers contributed to this story.

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