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All Wet

Will the fact that we live in a desert ever soak in?

By Ben Fulton
Posted // June 11,2007 - All

Unlike food, it’s a lot more difficult to find the inherent drama in water. Then again, it’s easy. Simply take it away from someone, or threaten their supply.


In a famous scene from Lawrence of Arabia, actor Peter O’Toole stands flabbergasted after a camel-riding Arab off in the distance shoots his desert guide dead for drinking from a tribal well. “That man was nothing,” the Arab tells him. “The well is everything.” The movie Chinatown turned water into a silent character of sorts when Jack Nicholson, playing private investigator J.J. Gittes, got his nostril sliced open for investigating the suspicious flow patterns of Los Angeles’ elixir.


Water takes on paramount importance once you realize you have little or none. The reliable flow from the tap has hypnotized us into a false sense of security. To know what scarcity feels like we must stretch all the way back to the Days of ’47. With the pioneers’ arrival, modern irrigation in the American West was effectively born. Massive amounts of Wasatch Range run-off were redirected—canals dug and built, streams drained, land flooded and farming operations established with alarming speed. The desert bloomed.


As Marc Reisner recounts in the introduction to his now famous book, Cadillac Desert, Mormons became so adept at irrigating the West that they went on to dominate the initial formation of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in 1902. That bureau, in turn, showed California, Arizona and Idaho how it was done.


Only later would states start to take on individual paths of water management as the federal government stepped in with massive subsidies for Western water projects in the form of dams, aqueducts and other irrigation-related construction. Most Western states calculated water bills based largely on use. Meanwhile, Utah built its residential water bill on a witch’s brew of federal subsidies, a little sales tax, a lot of property tax and usage.


In a sense, Utah lost its pioneering spirit. As denizens of the second-driest state in the nation, with water-use rates per capita scraping the top of the heap, we’re widely regarded as profligate sons and daughters. While others adhere to the time-honored “waste not, want not” motto, we’ve invented our own ethic somewhere along the lines of “waste a lot, want more.” And why not, when the true cost of water has been hidden from us for so long?


Heading into our fifth year of bigger and better drought, some argue that in the near future we may find out for ourselves just how parched the original pioneers felt when they made their way into the Salt Lake Valley.


Mother Nature has turned so stingy that the maternal metaphor no longer seems to apply. If she were feeling bountiful, we would have had more than 33 inches of snow near the Salt Lake City International Airport by the end of January. This year, we had only 3.5 inches.


Utah’s Division of Wildlife Resources has openly worried about the survival of the state’s ranges and habitat. Down south in Lake Powell, the water rests some 80 feet below normal. Opening the legislative session in the state Senate, Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the LDS Church’s Quorum of the Twelve sent out a prayer with two wishes on his mind: political courage to tackle the state budget in the face of falling revenues, and an end to the drought.


The first big snow storm of the year two weeks ago was but a drop in our thirsty bucket. As of late January, 11 of the state’s 13 major basins sat below 70 percent of their average capacity. Three days after Salt Lake Valley’s first big snow of the year, basin averages rose a mere 3.7 percent. Pray hard.


As assistant general manager of water supply and water quality at the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District, Bart Forsyth welcomed the snow, perhaps more than anyone. That’s because he knows the sort of challenge we’ll likely be up against. Salt Lake City gets its water from the Metro Water District of Sandy and Salt Lake. Forsyth’s district is wholesaler to 19 member agencies, cities and other districts—Bluffdale, South Jordan, West Jordan, Granger and Kearns, to name a few.


“The public’s response to the drought last year was exceptional,” Forsyth said. “This year, we’re going to have to try even harder.”


Forsyth illustrates many of his points with charts and studies, of which his office has an abundant supply. For now, we can imagine ourselves near the top of the Wasatch Range—specifically, the Trial Lake Area in the High Uintas east of Salt Lake City. Skiers naturally watch the snowpack reports, but when you’re a water man like Forsyth, this is where the action is. That’s because the Trial Lake Area snowpack feeds into four rivers—Bear, Duchesne, Weber and Provo—that feed into three critical conveyance facilities supplying the majority of water to Salt Lake Valley. Two inches of new snow at Snowbird is great. What Forsyth needs is a lot more than the seven-tenths of an inch that snow-measuring systems reported back from the Trial Lake Area. Forsyth gets new numbers every morning.


“I look at it as a further opportunity to develop our water conservation methods,” said Forsyth, ever the optimist.


And why shouldn’t he be? The Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District Forsyth works for is widely considered the state leader in conservation efforts and education. Leading by example, the district not long ago dug up all its thirsty Kentucky bluegrass and replaced it with more drought-tolerant natives grasses and vegetation. An in-house “demonstration garden” tutors conservation-minded home-owners in the ways of “proper landscape design, irrigation technology and low-water use plant selection.” The desert can still bloom, but with a fraction of the average hose-time.


As water dries up, there’s a growing sense that something has to be done. Even brochures count. The “Slow the Flow” campaign, sponsored by the Governor’s Water Conservation Team, printed a three-fold pamphlet bedecked with a smiling, blue-eyed boy. “He inherited his father’s eyes, his mother’s complexion, his grandfather’s laugh, and all his ancestors’ need for water,” it reads. Preliminary figures from the Governor’s Water Conservation Team: Wasatch Front residents conserved 11 percent more water in 2002 than in 2001. But the district has an aggressive policy to reduce water consumption 1 percent annually through the year 2025. If that goal’s met, we will have reduced water use by 25 percent, even as the valley’s population continues to explode.


Tokenism, say the critics. Preaching to the choir, say skeptics. The real solution is a combination of prescriptions everyone likes to talk about but few want to implement in earnest: abolishing the property-tax subsidy of operational costs and delivery projects for water, reworking water laws dating from the Old West that limit water transfers between agricultural and urban uses, increase water rates to more accurately reflect cost and, while we’re at it, hire more than the token number of water conservation coordinators.


“In the urban areas, so much of our current drought is self-imposed,” said Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council.


Self-imposed because even though we live in the second-most arid state in the nation, we seemingly insist on continuing our wasteful ways while paying some of the lowest rates imaginable.


Fact: While Denver and Phoenix use an average of 228 gallons per day per capita, Salt Lake City gulps down 245. Sandy and Draper are even worse offenders at 302 and 314 gallons per day per capita, respectively.


Fact: A Utah Foundation study on Utah water conservation found that, in a roster of 13 Western cities, Salt Lake City and Provo came away with the best water bargains by far. Only Sacramento paid water costs equal to Provo’s, which was the lowest at 75 cents per 1,000 gallons. The average cost per 1,000 gallons for these Western cities was $1.63. Utah’s statewide average landed at $1.15.


In the Old West, when someone first claimed a water source, that right was held sacrosanct. That precept later developed into the Prior Appropriation Doctrine, which gave special privileges to first claimants, including all the water they wanted from their claimed source. The only catch is, they must use it. Otherwise, pesky secondary claimants can exercise their claims. This doctrine grew renown as the law of “Use It or Lose It.” Water that could have been used for better purposes elsewhere and by someone else became locked into uses where it often generated less economic benefit. Because the Prior Appropriation Doctrine lives on, that’s largely the case today.


“History has tremendous weight. We are where we are now because of where we were then,” says Keith Criddle, a professor of agricultural economics at Utah State University. “With the game we’re under now, we don’t have a whole lot of incentive to transfer water.”


Utah pioneers recognized that their descendants would bear the brunt of any drought. So it was that the old water law was modified to allow more people access to water. Secondary users could take those holding senior rights to a water court, where water was opened up to more communal use.


That was then. In 1903, the state’s water law was significantly revised and updated to make way for federal reclamation dollars for massive water developments. The parched pack of Western states now had to play by federal rules. To meet those expectations, states had to show a stable source of revenue in order to contribute their share or repay the federal government for expenditures on water projects at a later date. A lot of states, Utah included, showed their money in the form of property taxes. But while other states later changed their formulas for matching federal funds to better reflect usage and water’s actual value, Utah relentlessly clung to property taxes. We still do.


It’s a hard weakness to fault, and it made sense when we were flush with water. Subsidizing the water with property taxes kept the price of water low, and therefore easy to sell and collect money on in order to repay the federal government. But Utah came to rely a lot more heavily on property tax subsidies for water than most states.


When the Colorado River Compact of 1922 gave California rights to the lion’s share of that vital source, perhaps a sense of fear was put into Utahns. With the trials of their pioneer ancestors fresh in their minds, they realized water’s paramount importance. Mighty California got its deal. For Utah, water was so important, we would gladly get ours by way of property taxes as an offering for water projects and delivery, and keep offering them. This practically guaranteed a ready source for water-project funding in partnership with the feds, thereby ensuring that our taps flowed. But as a subsidy, it hid water’s true cost from us because we paid for only a margin of our real use.


All the while, our close proximity to water sources and abundant snowfall run-off gave us the illusion that we really had more water than we do. Tucson, Ariz., does a much better conversion job than we do. There, water is so expensive, virtually no one bothers with grass lawns. The majority of the city’s water also comes from ground sources. Utah may be the second-driest state in the nation, but abundant surface water makes us feel as if we have more water than is actually the case.


Changing the water-funding formula can be difficult. Utah gave up the water courts of pioneer days but never really abandoned its communal feelings about this precious resource. Our state’s liberal subsidizing of water costs lets everyone have water all right, but the costs are so hidden, and the price so affordable, that we’ve grown accustomed to using it liberally. (Don’t think we won’t suck up our full share of the Colorado River when new allotments are divided in 2005, either.)


“Utah has always been a unique state in its own little way, and water is no exception to that rule,” said Janice Houston, senior research analyst at the Utah Foundation, and author of two reports on Utah’s water ways.


“I’ve always been of the mind that we should be careful. We should Xeriscape [landscaping method that uses drought-resistant plants]. We should attach price mechanisms. On the other hand, if we leave it completely up to the marketplace, we could end up with a situation where markets are created by winners and losers. Do we want to create that sort of system?”


In other words, low-income people could be hurt by increases in water rates.


The list is long of people and institutions espousing a water allocation system based on market forces linked to supply and demand, and ultimately price. They include: The Sutherland Institute, Utah Rivers Council, the Utah Taxpayers Association and a gaggle of ivory-tower academics who took the time to dissect their water bills.


University of Utah economics professor Gail Blattenberger was miffed to find that her property and sales taxes paid for close to half of her bill. “Here I am, an economist, and it seemed a very strange way to pay for water,” she said. “People who don’t even pay property taxes are having their water subsidized by people who do. So it seems we could make a substantial difference by having people pay for the water they use. I would also agree with others who say that the problem is not really so much a shortage of water, but the way we allocate it.”


B. Delworth Gardner, professor emeritus at Brigham Young University, is even more adamant about the virtue of a pricing mechanism. People can talk voluntary conservation all they want. Only when you hit people in the pocketbook, making them pay for all the water they use, will conservation happen.


“In Israel—which has extremely expensive water—they use it very, very efficiently,” he said. “If we don’t price it correctly we’ll essentially waste it.”


Frankel, who has his Utah Rivers Council staffers attend water board meetings to track future water projects, practically relishes the opportunity to describe how Utah is a good 20 years behind other western states in water conservation efforts. As a conservationist, he’s tired of seeing Utah’s rivers and their dependent wildlife habitat fall victim to dams and other water projects. As an amateur economist and water-policy advocate, he’s tired of watching people fall for the shop-worn cliche that Utah can work its way out of drought through a combination of voluntary conservation and more water-delivery projects.


He suspects—nay, knows—that water districts are loathe to see true water pricing instituted because the dawn of pricing would mean the end of their coveted water projects and the property tax subsidies that pay for them.


“Every river in the state of Utah has been dammed for water development. But the water districts keep chanting the Chicken Little-mantra that we’re running out of water and we need more water development. That is the bottom line,” Frankel said. “There are all these attitudes that water conservation is a good thing, but that we should do it after we’ve spent millions more on water projects. It’s hypocrisy. In Utah, water conservation is a form of water development. We have one of the largest water bureaucracies with the most extensive system of tax subsidies in the western United States.”


Marin County, Calif.; Santa Barbara, Calif.; Tucson and Phoenix—each has 10 full-time water conservationists. Salt Lake City, Ogden and Provo boast one each. Meanwhile, water engineers mull over future plans to dam the Bear River, drill 200 groundwater wells near banks of the Jordan River, treat water from Utah Lake and build a pipeline from Green River above Flaming Gorge. These are not small, inexpensive projects.


“We still carry with us this attitude that water development is an intrinsic good,” Frankel said. “Why will we spend money on water projects, but not on water conservation? Do we really want to reduce water use, or do we just want to appear to reduce water?”


Last week Mayor Rocky Anderson, the first Salt Lake City mayor to tear out his bluegrass and install Xeriscaping, proposed a restructuring of water rates on three levels during summer. The more that residential users continue to hose away at peak summer hours, the more likely they’d be pushed into a higher-cost level. The proposal also extends the summer rate period to April through October (currently, it’s June through September).


Daniel McCool, professor of political science at the University of Utah and director of the American West Center, has studied Utah’s water usages for so long it’s easy to detect that he’s a little tired of making the same point repeatedly. Water torture to McCool is having to state your argument over and over and over again.


The prescription list, if Utahns are really serious about conservation, is easy. Number one, significantly increase water fees, then use that revenue to help subsidize residential Xeriscaping. Number two, require dual-water systems using agricultural-grade water for lawn and garden use for all new residential developments. Number three, eliminate subsidies for both agricultural and urban water. That would free up property taxes for some other use. Like, say, our severely overburdened educational system.


“If we did those three things right, it would solve our water problems in this valley for decades to come,” McCool said. “We don’t need any new dams or diversions. What we need is a dose of common sense and economic rationality.”


The property tax subsidy for water is really a case-study in tax justice. Maxwell’s prayer before the state Senate may not have made the connection between our current drought and strapped-for-cash budget explicitly clear, but the connection is there. It’s absolutely ludicrous, McCool believes, for us to talk of setting inmates free due to lack of money when we lavish so much unnecessary subsidies on water.


“We have a long tradition of getting other people besides ourselves to pay for our water,” McCool said. “Every dollar we spend on subsidizing water is a dollar we do not have to educate our children, keep violent offenders locked up or maintain roads and infrastructure. When someone says we need a $400 million water project so we can continue wasting water, the next questions have to be, ‘Where do we cut $400 million? Do we take it out of education?’”


Changing the way water rates are structured, though, means we may have to phase out the property tax subsidy as we increase water rates. Gardner feels people are rightly suspicious of any government that would make them pay more for water without some sort of tax reduction as an exchange.


Our current system of water management costs us in other ways as well. A 1999 audit of the Central Utah Water Conservancy District by Utah’s Legislative Auditor General concluded that poor financial management at the water district cost taxpayers $11 million, and that district board members indirectly received large amounts of money from district contracts. Between 1995 and 1998, the water district raked in $7.2 million more in property taxes than it needed. The audit also predicted that the consequences of the water district’s financial management could cost Utah taxpayers between $81 million and $170 million by 2015. (The Central Utah Water Conservancy District issued a 57-page response explaining that its operations, which are held to strict federal standards and laws, were misunderstood by state auditors.)


So, if usage is the culprit, are we really in a drought? “There’s no doubt that in a meteorological sense we are in a drought, but that’s not the problem,” said McCool. “If we used water wisely and efficiently a drought would not be a threat to us.”


As such, there are two, some might say three, elements to any drought. The first, weather, is something out of our control. The next element is our own conservation efforts.


In the West, which has grown at a significantly faster rate than the rest of the nation, the third element is population. Utah is rightly famous for its top-flight birth rate. By 2020, we will have at least one million more people in the Salt Lake Valley.


“If we dam every river, divert every stream and kill every last fish, then what do we do when the next million people show up?” McCool asked. “Water is a finite resource along with clean air, land and other public resources. It will not support infinite growth. There’s a carrying capacity to this valley.”


“It’s not the glass of water you order at the restaurant that’s wasteful. It’s the four glasses of water needed to wash that glass,” Duer added.


Those are the kinds of lessons Stephanie Duer, Salt Lake City’s first official water-conservation coordinator, gets paid to recite. Walking or biking to work, she grew up in a house in Northern California with no grass, only pepper trees and other low-water vegetation. Perfect for the job, then, even if she likes to skewer what she sees as a few misconceptions on the conservationist side. She’s sometimes called a “token conservationist,” a title that ruffles her feathers a bit.


It’s Duer’s less-than-committed view on the necessity of linking water use to increased rates that raises the hackles of some.


“What I’ve read shows that we’d need an 18 to 25 percent increase [in rates] to affect a one to two percent decrease in water use,” Duer said. “Remember when people said they’d never pay more than $1 per gallon of gas? We got used to paying $1.50 and above pretty quickly. Look at how much some people will pay for one cup of coffee. What really influences people is education and regulation.”


For Duer, it’s not the cost of water itself that will spur conservation, but how that cost is structured. It’s a matter of calibration. “I didn’t say that increasing water costs wouldn’t fail to affect use,” she said, drawing the distinction. “But it’s not a straight line. What’s important is the structure.”


The Utah Rivers Council’s Zach Frankel wishes there were at least 10 Stephanie Duers working along the Wasatch Front in the cause of conservation, but nonetheless parts ways with his colleague over the necessity of increasing water prices.


“If someone doesn’t see the effect of price on use, they’re either ridiculously rich, or in debt,” Frankel said.


Drawing a connection between Utah’s profligate use of water and our high rate of personal bankruptcy filings would seem a stretch to some. But both point to an overriding sense of entitlement, a sense that we’re loathe to deny ourselves something—like green lawns--regardless of costs, means or resources.


Duer has some words for those people. “For the next five months we could get all the snow we need, and we’d still be in a drought,” she said. “Even in a wet year, we don’t get enough water to maintain our chosen landscape.”


Conservation isn’t about finding new water sources. It’s about diminishing your needs, much like living on a fixed income.


After Secretary of Interior Gale Norton recently reined in California’s share of the Colorado River, the Golden State suddenly got creative. If necessity is the mother of invention, crisis is the origin of new ways and procedures. The threat of a reduced supply of the Colorado River led federal agencies and California to accept a transfer of water from agricultural use in the Imperial Valley to urban Los Angeles. These sorts of transfers can only be harbingers of things to come—without, and perhaps even with, conservation efforts.


“What California did was strengthen the ownership rights of people who had them. Before that those water owners could give it away, but they couldn’t sell or lease it,” said Keith Criddle at USU. “Now they can lease it, which is essentially an annual sell. I think that would be really good way to address our water needs, especially along the Wasatch Front.”


McCool concurs. “All the forces of the American West point to water marketing,” he said.


Other forces are moving too. There are new considerations and proposals and perhaps even a growing realization that it’s not Mother Nature that’s hemming us into dry times so much as our own water usage.


At the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District, Forsyth said his district board is looking at a review of the role of property tax subsidies for the operational cost of delivering water. It’s also looking at the possibility of rewarding people, through price, who use water wisely, while charging a higher rate for those who use it, as Forsyth puts it, “inefficiently.” But he can’t stress enough that these reviews are preliminary, and that it’s premature to assume any conclusions will come out of them.


One thing’s for certain. The sight of snow falling outside his office window is welcome.


“Look at this, we’ve got some snow,” he said. “Hopefully, it’s doing this very thing right now in the Trial Lake Area.”

 
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