Utah water policy ‘playing catch up when it should be leading the pack,’ according to new report

Score card calls on states to take climate change, growth and water shortages seriously.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Colorado River loops back on itself before reaching the confluence with the Green and the start of Cataract Canyon in Canyonlands Utah as seen in mid-October 2021.

Utah has made strides in improving its wasteful water practices in recent years, but as a new report by a collection of water providers, industries and conservation groups shows, it still has a long way to go.

Low water levels have triggered an ecological collapse at the Great Salt Lake. Mega-reservoirs like Lake Powell and Lake Mead have dropped to critical lows, heating up legal spats between the states that rely on them. It’s spurred Utah lawmakers to pass a flurry of bills addressing water conservation, and they say they’re prepared to do more in the days ahead.

A new report, however, calls for more aggressive measures.

“Utah urgently needs further investments in water efficiency and conservation,” said Ron Burke, president and CEO of the Alliance for Water Efficiency, in a news release titled “Progress has been made in recent years, but in many ways, Utah is playing catch up when it should be leading the pack.”

The nonprofit alliance includes public agencies like the Salt Lake Department of Public Works and Utah State University’s Center for Water Efficiency Landscaping. It also includes businesses and consulting firms. The group works to provide information on water use through the nation and lobby for better policy.

It released its latest score card Wednesday ranking states on the laws and best practices they adopt to improve water efficiency, sustainability and affordability.

Utah ranked 20th in the nation, and fifth out of the seven arid states in the Colorado River Basin, earning just 28 out of 89 possible points for its water policy.

The alliance issues score cards every five years. Even with the reforms and requirements lawmakers approved last year, Utah dropped from its ranking in 2017, when it was No. 17 in the nation.

California ranked highest on the score card, followed by Texas, Arizona, Washington and Georgia. The nation as a whole has made little progress, the report warns, going on to urge states to take advantage of new federal funds to better adapt to climate change, drought and water shortages.

“Our main goal is to engage with states,” Burke said, “and help them find ways to be more efficient. Our goal isn’t to embarrass anyone.”

The alliance had some recommendations on how Utah could specifically improve its water policy score. It called on the state to require more efficient plumbing fixtures, like low-flow toilets. It suggested lawmakers help utilities limit leaks in their distribution systems. It also recommended funding for cities to reuse and recycle wastewater.

Utah’s water rates are good, actually?

Utah’s evaluation isn’t all bad news — there are some areas where it’s doing comparatively well.

Lawmakers set aside $70 million for the state’s water optimization program, which provides grants and support for farmers looking to improve their irrigation practices. The state received a perfect score in funding for efficiency programs and in the technical assistance categories.

Utah had a decent tally when it comes to integrating land planning with water resources, and it scored above average for conservation planning compared to other states.

“I know this is an issue in Utah,” Burke said. “… The state’s growing rapidly, and all around the nation, the areas that tend to be growing the fastest are the ones having water supply challenges.”

The Beehive State also received high marks for its rate structure, which the report found encourages conservation. That’s because the state requires tiered systems, charging customers more money per gallon the more they use.

But the glowing mark for the state’s water rates may come as a surprise for some. Utah gets consistently dinged for its high rate of municipal water consumption, often blamed on its low rates. The state has the largest unmetered secondary system in the nation, which allows customers to use as much as they want for a flat fee buried in their property taxes.

Big water districts have also come under scrutiny as of late for the property taxes they use to fund infrastructure projects, while smaller utilities must use bonds and increase rates to fund improvements. In October, Sen. Daniel McCay, R-Riverton, threatened to introduce legislation that would bar such uses of property tax, but he has since walked back the bill and now it only supports a study on the issue.

Burke said his team is aware of Utah’s unusual way of supplementing water rates with property taxes and debated how to evaluate it in the report.

“We decided to go ahead and score it the way we did other states,” he said, “although you could argue that maybe we shouldn’t have.”

Lawmakers adopted a bill last year that requires secondary meters on most connections by 2030, which it will supplement with grants.

Boosting efficiency at the tap, cutting losses in the pipes

Still, the alliance’s score card report makes clear Utah has room for improvement, including in areas lawmakers have recently resisted.

Sen. Jani Iwamoto and Rep. Joel Ferry, who have both since retired from the Legislature, sponsored a bipartisan bill last year that would have required efficient toilets, bathroom faucets and showers in new construction, saying it could save enough water to support 30,000 homes by 2030. Lawmakers ultimately revised the flow rates of bathroom faucets and showers, but not toilets.

But as Burke pointed out, toilets tend to last a long time — decades, in many cases — and shouldn’t be left out of efficiency standards.

In a news release, the Alliance for Water Efficiency pushed beyond efficient fixtures in new construction. It recommended all fixtures sold in Utah be low-flow. Products labeled WaterSense, for example, are about 20% more efficient than federal standards.

“This is an opportunity, really, for Utah to drive further water savings,” Burke said, “with a program that’s pretty easy to implement.”

When it comes to leaky lines that deliver water to Utah homes, businesses and industry, Rep. Melissa Ballard, R-North Salt Lake, tried in 2020 and 2022 to audit water losses in systems statewide, develop a standard for excessive losses and find ways to address those leaks. Such a policy would align with the alliance’s recommendations, and even had the backing of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District. But Ballard’s bill failed to pass on the House floor last year.

A typical water supplier in the U.S. loses 10% or more through its distribution pipes, Burke said.

“This is water that is already being treated, it’s pumped … sanitized, pumped again,” he said, “then it gets lost to the ground. So it’s [also] a waste of money.”

Laura Briefer, director of Salt Lake City Department of Public Utilities, said the city loses right around 10% of its water before it’s delivered to customers, although some of that is due to firefighting and flushing pipes. She was unable to review the alliance’s score card report before it was made public, and could only speak generally about its findings, but said state support for more efficient fixtures and leak monitoring would be beneficial in managing water supply.

“Being able to receive some kind of grant funding to help with water infrastructure in general,” Briefer said, “could help with prioritization of repair and replacement of aging water infrastructure.”

Water recycling could help the Colorado River but could hurt Great Salt Lake

The alliance’s third recommended area of prioritization — wastewater reuse and recycling — could benefit the Colorado River Basin, but could also siphon away more water that would otherwise end up in the Great Salt Lake.

Large treatment plants along the Wasatch Front discharge their treated water to the Jordan River, a tributary of the Great Salt Lake, or to canals that flow to the lake’s bays. There’s increasing pressure, however, for sewer operators to make costly upgrades to their facilities in order to treat that water to higher standards.

Lake advocates worry that with the region’s rapid growth, water managers may find it an appealing prospect to capture that higher-quality water and put it to consumptive use, which also helps pay for infrastructure improvements.

“It’s tempting for a lot of reasons,” Briefer said. “... But we’ve determined we need to look more broadly at the public cost and benefit, and the public cost of a shrinking Great Salt Lake is incredibly high.”

Burke acknowledged that Utah is a unique case, and water reuse might not make sense everywhere. In the Colorado River Basin, however, climate change is fueling shortages. It has cities like Los Angeles and Las Vegas eyeing wastewater as a way to support their growing populations.

He also noted that even as some states in the basin have stepped up their water-saving efforts, the Colorado River and its reservoirs remain parched. All the states that rely on it will need to grapple with a future where there’s simply less.

That’s why it’s important to think about water supplies from a watershed perspective and not just from a local supplier’s lens, Burke said.

“That’s a role states can play,” he noted. “... With climate change and aridification, there’s only so much water to go around. And it’s going to be less predictable.”