Orem man threatens to kill his lawn if city doesn’t cut its water rates

Sticker shock • Resident says his $400 water bill is unjust; city says tiered water rates and resulting bills are meant to reduce his nearly 200,000-gallon monthly use.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Walt Nicholes talks about his backyard in Orem. Nicholes sent a letter to the Orem City Council advising them he plans to stop watering his 3/4 acre lawn and garden and let it die because he can no longer afford to water it. Thursday, September 21, 2017.

Orem • A longtime garden enthusiast says exorbitant water bills may force him to turn against his own beloved grassy yard — if the Orem City Council doesn’t reconsider its water rates.

Walt Nicholes, a 32-year Orem resident, sent a letter of protest to council members this week after receiving a monthly water bill for $284. With other water-related charges, his total water costs came to nearly $400 — more than twice what he usually pays. If the pricey bills continue, Nicholes said he plans to stop watering his lawn altogether and let it die in protest.

Nicholes’ quandary illustrates the intended effects of a new law that requires tiered pricing on municipal water consumption statewide, so water users pay more per gallon the more they use.

The city of Orem boosted its water rates and introduced a tiered price structure late last year, as per the new law, passed by the state Legislature in 2016. But Orem City Councilman Mark Seastrand said the real reason for Nicholes’ large bills is his excessive watering.

Nicholes could substantially reduce his bill by changing his habits, and if he did, Seastrand said, Orem’s new rate structure will have done its job.

Collectively, Orem residents use about 16 million gallons of water per day in the wintertime. Daily usage jumps up to 60 million gallons in summer, when residents of this Utah County community start watering their lawns.

That volume of water use is taxing the city’s water system, so when state lawmakers required Utah’s cities to adopt tiered water rates, Seastrand said city leaders took the assignment to heart.

Restructuring water rates, they reasoned, could raise money for necessary water-system repairs and upgrades, while encouraging residents to reduce their use. And if residents conserved enough, he said, Orem might be able to delay a costly upgrade to its water storage capacity.

Unlike many other Utah cities, Orem did not have a tiered rate structure prior to the 2016 law taking effect. Residents paid 58 cents per thousand gallons used.

Last fall, the city put a four-tier pricing system in place. The first 11,000 gallons — more than enough to cover a typical household’s indoor use, Seastrand said — is billed at 79 cents per thousand gallons. That climbs to 99 cents per thousand gallons, and then maxes out at $1.58 per thousand gallons, should a household use more than 65,000 gallons in a month.

Nicholes used 191,000 gallons this July, so most of his summer water was priced at the high end of $1.58 per thousand gallons.

“Part of his challenge is he has a rather large lot, and most of it is in grass,” Seastrand said. “That’s why his water bill is pretty high. And yes, the tier structure means that a key part of the water he is using is going to be more expensive.”

Nicholes’ lot totals about three-fourths of an acre, with a fully-landscaped backyard covered almost entirely in grass. About one-third of the yard is a sort of park where Nicholes said he hosts ward parties and other neighborhood events. An adjoining rose garden planted by his father-in-law, Nicholes said, holds sentimental value to his wife, Rozanne Nicholes.

Despite his emotional attachment to his yard, Nicholes, who provides over-the-phone technical support from his home office, hopes to retire soon and can’t afford large water bills anymore. He said he plans to stop watering his lawn next summer to let it die a slow, natural death — below a sign he intends to post in his yard, indicating the yellow grass is a political statement.

Orem’s new rates are unfair, Nicholes said, forcing him to subsidize his neighbors. Under the old system, he said, everyone paid the same amount per gallon no matter how much they used.

“Now, if I use twice as much water as my neighbor,” he said, “I pay four to five times as much for it.”

But Josh Palmer, who oversees water efficiency education in the state’s Division of Water Resources, defended Utah’s system of staggered water prices.

“Tiered rates are designed to place a greater cost on the highest users and reduce the burden on those who work hard to be efficient,” Palmer said in a statement. “We stand by the value of tiered rates, the importance of water efficiency and the men and women behind delivering Utah’s most precious resource.”

The Utah Rivers Council, an advocacy group that has long pushed for water prices that encourage conservation, also panned Nicholes’ complaints. Executive director Zach Frankel noted that Nicholes would have paid far more if he lived in another Western state.

“He has no business using 200,000 gallons of water in a month,” Frankel said, “and even less business complaining about paying $400.”

In other metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Denver, Frankel said it’s not uncommon for residents to pay $4 per thousand gallons of water. Even within Utah, Seastrand added, Orem’s water rates are low.

While nearby Eagle Mountain’s rates start at 80 cents per thousand gallons, Salt Lake residents initially pay $1.30 per roughly 750 gallons, while Bountiful’s charges start at $1.79 per thousand gallons, and Ogden’s, at $1.74. All of those cities have implemented tiered rates.

The problem, Frankel said, is not high rates. The problem is that Nicholes uses too much water.

“What this gentleman needs is … someone to help him think through his water practices, to save money,” Frankel said. “The guy has a genuine concern, and someone should help him.”

Paul Johnson, a professor of turfgrass science with USU’s Center for Water Efficient Landscaping, agreed. Based on his bill and the size of his yard, Johnson said, Nicholes — like many Utahns — appears to be overwatering. But rather than killing his grass and replacing it with river rock, Johnson said, Nicholes could adjust his irrigation practices.

“Grass can get by on not much water,” Johnson said. “It’s a people problem, not a grass problem.

Grass needs about 18 inches of rain or irrigation over the course of a year to remain green and keep growing, Johnson said. His calculations suggest Nicholes should have put about 300,000 gallons on his lawn between June, July and August — nearly half the amount Nicholes is currently using.

Nicholes countered that his lawn needs so much water because the topsoil is shallow and underlaid by highly porous rocks.

But rather than increasing his water, Johnson said Nicholes should use smaller amounts more frequently to address this. A free soil analysis by the county’s Utah State University Extension office could help him dial in just how much water he needs, and how often.

Orem had no intention of pricing its residents out of a green lawn, said Seastrand, who nonetheless added he was glad to see Nicholes and other residents re-evaluating their water use. Because city water rates have been low in the past, the councilman said, “the natural outcome was people got used to using more water than they really need.”

“I have a fair amount of lawn myself,” Seastrand said, “and I am in the process of saying, ‘You know, I really don’t need this much lawn.’ ”