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How this proposed constitutional amendment — Amendment D — protects water users

(Rick Bowmer | AP file Photo) This June 10, 2019, photo shows the Big Cottonwood Creek, in the Big Cottonwood canyon, near Salt Lake City. A measure on the Utah election ballot — Amendment D — attempts to add protections for Utah cities and water users who receive their water supply from other cities.

For decades, some of Utah’s larger cities have been in the retail water delivery business, building service areas that stretch far outside their municipal boundaries.
Such arrangements served the state well, ensuring a stable water supply for outlying communities as they grew into cities in their own right. But they have also spurred fears that a big water-providing municipality like Salt Lake City could cut off its out-of-city customers, leaving them high and dry, or treat them unfairly in other ways.
While city water officials say such fears are baseless, Utah voters are being asked to weigh in on proposed constitutional changes that would clarify these cities' obligations. Amendment D would require such cities to treat all customers the same whether the connection is inside or outside the city limits and ensure they have the water resources to meet everyone’s needs.
This measure may seem like a solution looking for a problem, but its backers say it’s been a long time coming, especially now that water demand is increasing with rapid urban growth and supply is shrinking in the face of long-term drought and climate change.
Amendment D and its companion legislation would safeguard communities that have come to rely on a neighboring city for their water, but may find themselves cut off if water supplies become tight, according to Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, who sponsored the proposed amendment’s enabling legislation. HJR3 passed last session without a single dissenting vote.
These fears were promoted during the 2018 session by Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, who claimed that existing law enabled Salt Lake City to terminate “surplus” water-delivery contracts outside its city limits with just 30 days notice or subject out-of-city customers to unfair rates.
Under current practices, that scenario would not happen for water users tapped into Salt Lake City’s sprawling distribution system, according to Laura Briefer, executive director of Salt Lake City’s Department of Public Utilities. But to address the concerns Coleman raised, the city agreed to participate in crafting changes to the state constitution and water law. Coleman’s HB31, enacted last year, and Amendment D are the fruits of those efforts.

“The city is generally supportive. We spent a lot of time trying to get it right,” Briefer said. “Having the Utah League of Cities and Towns at the table with us and a number of other other cities and stakeholders it was a really strong effort in trying to identify a potential problem and modernize the constitution to address it.”
Amendment D is anything but straightforward, and its appearance last week on Utah’s mail ballots unleashed a flood of inquiries from puzzled voters to Public Utilities, which posted an explanation on its website.
At least 50 of the state’s 249 cities provide water outside their boundaries. Salt Lake City, serving 25,000 out-of-city connections, provides water to more people outside its limits than any other Utah city.
Utah’s first modern city began supplying unincorporated areas along the Salt Lake Valley’s eastern bench more than a century ago with water harvested from the canyons in the Wasatch Mountains. At the time, there was an anticipation that these areas would be annexed into the city, but that never happened, according to Briefer. Instead, these areas incorporated into their own cities or were annexed into other cities, but they remain connected to Salt Lake City’s network to this day.
The city’s water service area now covers Millcreek, Holladay, Cottonwood Heights, South Salt Lake and parts of Murray and Midvale, putting nearly one-third of its 81,000 connections outside city limits.
Amendment D would not require Salt Lake City to do anything that it’s not already doing, other than designate an official service area by ordinance, Briefer said. Within those boundaries, all customers would hold the same legal status, meaning none would have priority over another should water supplies get short.
Should the amendment pass, cities would be required to use industry standards for setting water rates, establish advisory boards with representation from users outside the city, and be barred from selling an interest in their waterworks.
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