In a shift, developers in St. George area may need water managers’ approval to build

The change would put the onus on the water district to guarantee there is enough water for developers’ projects.

(Jim Urquhart | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Washington County Water Conservancy District may soon require residential developers to ensure there will be enough water available for their projects.

St. George • Developers of residential building projects might soon need to secure guarantees of water from the Washington County Water Conservancy District rather than from cities in the drought-stricken area.

Ivins Mayor Chris Hart, who also sits on the water district’s board of trustees, said cities are essentially getting out of the water business when it comes to approving residential developments.

“Our city and others in the district will not even include water in the conversation, even though everyone knows there is a water shortage,” he said.

If the change, as expected, is adopted by Hart and other board members, it would put the onus on the water district to guarantee there is enough water for developers’ projects. It also would place an additional burden on developers to follow through with the required steps to secure water for their developments.

Under the process outlined by the district, developers would first need cities to grant them preliminary plat approval and sign off on their construction plans. They would also need to sign a disclaimer acknowledging that the city is not responsible for providing water.

Next, developers would have to pay their impact fees and obtain a will-serve letter from the district, in which the district guarantees they will supply the water required for the development. If the district lacks the resources to issue the letter, developers would have to wait until more water becomes available.

Once developers have secured a will-serve letter and presented it to the city, they would have one year to finish their project.

“If they don’t have the project built within a year or at least the ability to get final plat [approval] within a year,” Hart said, “their guaranteed water goes away and they drop to the back of the line. So there are a lot of incentives for developers to get preliminary plat on manageable-sized pieces of property.

“It won’t do them any good to apply for 10,000 lots and only be able to develop 500 of them within a year because the water will just not become available to them for that portion they were not able to get through final plat,” he added. “That provision is there intentionally to prevent big national builders from buying up all the water and shutting the availability of it off to local and smaller-scale developers.”

District spokesperson Karry Rathje said the proposal, which would only impact residential developments, has several benefits.

“First and foremost, it enables the district to better track the municipal building permits that are being issued,” she said. “Currently, there’s not an established process for the cities to come to the district to ensure there is sufficient water capacity in the system for [new] connections. This [proposal] creates an opportunity for the district to be more involved in understanding what development is underway in the municipalities.”

By knowing what developments are on tap, Rathje explained, the district can more effectively plan when and where to deploy additional water projects. Moreover, it would assure cities that there is sufficient water in the system to serve new connections and reassure developers that water is available before they invest in building a new home or structure.

While water in Washington County is not in danger of running dry in the immediate future, the supply is dwindling in the area, which had the highest growth of any metro area in the country between July 2020 and July 2021, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In 2020, the district delivered 32,000 acre-feet of water, about 87% of its 36,659 acre-feet yearly supply. By their calculations, district officials estimate they have enough water on hand to last another five to seven years or more based on current growth. Additional wells and three new reservoirs are planned in the next few years to increase the district’s supply.

While the proposal is not being warmly embraced by all developers, Southern Utah Home Builders Association spokesman Stacy Young said his organization supports it.

“It will bring more certainty and clarity to the availability of water and how it is being allocated,” he said.

One disadvantage, Young added, is that it would require developers to pay the impact fees on all the lots in a subdivision up front instead of one at a time as they build on them. While that additional cash outlay is not without pain, Young said it would discourage a run on the tap by nervous developers, who might otherwise take in enormous preliminary plats just to tie up all the water for future use.

District board members are expected to meet later this year to approve the changes, which would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2023.