Republican lawmakers flush bill requiring low-flow plumbing fixtures

A law requiring efficient toilets, faucets and shower heads could reduce annual water use by 16,000 acre-feet.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The eastern finger of Deer Creek Reservoir continues to recede as Main Creek becomes a narrow ribbon of water during extreme drought conditions on Monday, July 12, 2021. An estimated one-third of the reservoir's capacity is used for toilets in Utah annually.

In one year, 51,000 acre-feet of water flows through Utah toilets, enough to account for a third of Deer Creek Reservoir’s capacity.

That’s the “eye-opening” statistic Sen. Jani Iwamoto highlighted Tuesday while pitching a draft bill that would require more efficient toilets, faucets and shower heads in new residential construction, saying it would reduce annual water use by 16,000 acre-feet by 2030. That’s enough water to supply 30,000 homes.

“Utah is the only state in the Colorado Basin that has not adopted a similar standard or allows for municipalities to pass ordinances requiring these fixtures,” the Salt Lake City Democrat told the Legislative Water Development Commission. “This is one way to address our scarce water supply. And let’s face it, there’s no new water that’s left, and so we need to do something to do with our existing water supply.”

Utah is facing both explosive residential growth and shrinking water supplies because of climate change, she added. Iwamoto’s measure would affect installations for new residential bathroom construction and remodels. Building codes would be modified to set maximum flows for toilets at 1.28 gallons per flush; for faucets at 1.5 gallons per minute; and for shower heads at 2 gallons per minute. These exceed the current standard by 20%.

While high-efficiency fixtures generally are no more expensive than less efficient ones, mandating them drew pushback from Republican lawmakers, such as Rep. Casey Snider of Paradise, who said he prefers tiered water rates for getting people to reduce water use.

“I have concerns about the government telling me what kind of toilet I can have in my house,” Snider said. “I’m concerned what it can do to the Great Salt Lake.”

Snider argued that reducing bathroom water use will result in less water entering the depleted Great Salt Lake, which receives most of the treated wastewater generated on the Wasatch Front.

The commission voted 5-4 in support of the bill, but the measure still failed because four Republican House members on the panel voted against it. Commission co-chairman Rep. Joel Ferry, R-Brigham City, voted in favor.

The tepid support for the bill frustrated water conservation advocates, like Utah Rivers Council executive director Zach Frankel who has witnessed the demise of numerous water-saving measures.

“This shows how much hostility there is to saving water in the statehouse,” Frankel said Tuesday. “I’ve sat through nearly 10 hours of committee discussion today on water and they haven’t allowed one second of public input. That’s partly why there’s so much basic ignorance up here about water. They refuse to listen and learn how to save money.”

Despite failing to secure the commission’s official blessing, Iwamoto still plans to introduce the bill into the Senate in the upcoming session.

“This is a critical time and this change will make a difference,” she said. “As we see in Monroe [in Sevier County], the city council voted to pause building because there is no water. It’s a scary time and we need serious solutions.”