For as long as anyone can remember, Utah has either had a shortage of water or has been in danger of having one. This comes as no surprise considering Utah’s arid climate. Periodically a public conservation campaign, funded by your tax dollars, will run in a variety of media outlets.
And sometimes individuals try to make a significant dent in their own water use, except they end up in trouble for it.
Salt Lake City bureaucrats recently threatened a couple for replacing their front lawn using xeriscaping, where little to no water is needed. Apparently, not only are governments in Utah not really serious about conserving water, but they also will violate property rights to force people to maintain a water-hungry lawn.
The question then becomes: why are the majority of Utahns accepting of these types of actions? Why don’t more Utahns want to conserve water and use the landscaping techniques that are found in places like St. George and Phoenix? Surely because water is such a scarce resource, it must be expensive for the average household to continue using water at such a high rate… right?
The answer to this question lies in how Utahns indirectly pay for much of their water. Instead of seeing the real costs on a water bill, they are hidden in property taxes. Consumers have little incentive to monitor their own usage because on its face, water seems extremely inexpensive. Why bother conserving something that is believed to be inexpensive?
Utah is one of the only states in the West that continues subsidizing the cost of water using property taxes. This has resulted in Utah not only having the “cheapest” water rates in the country, but also the highest per-person municipal water use. While there is constant talk of drought, consumers are incentivized by the government to overuse water with little consequence or care.
If anything, water districts need Utahns to ignore conservation in order to justify the expensive tax-funded water projects they support, such as the Lake Powell Pipeline and seven dams along the Bear River.
This past legislative session Senator Jim Dabakis sponsored Senate Bill 151 in order to fix this imbalance and bring property tax relief to Utah families. No longer would water districts be able to hide the true cost of water in your property tax bill. SB 151 would end property tax subsidies in the more urban areas of Utah, while exempting rural communities that face a more complex water reality.
Of course, the “Water Lobby” successfully pressured legislators to defeat the bill in committee.
In the past this idea has been suggested by a legislative audit and the Utah Foundation as a way for consumers to better monitor their own consumption of water. Utah is a desert state and conservation of this precious resource is important. Allowing market forces to apply to water consumption will provide the change that Utah needs.
And if a person grossly overuses water, they will have to pay for it, like this man in Orem.