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Bill proposing fees on public water systems needs more work, House Tax Committee decides

The House Revenue and Taxation Committee decided to hold more discussion on a bill that would deliver $1.5 million ongoing in funding to support public water systems.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The state's water systems have been forced to contend with Utah's drought, which left reservoirs empty this summer. Pineview Reservoir, a popular recreation spot in Ogden Valley is now a quarter full as seen on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021.

Water is on the minds of Utah legislators to start the new year.

On the second day of the general session, the House Revenue and Taxation Committee opened by hearing a presentation on HB64, sponsored by Rep. Christine Watkins, R-Price. The bill was intended to increase funding for the support of public water systems throughout the state — a need that is growing along with Utah’s population.

“When it comes to providing safe and reliable drinking water, we need increased resources to be able to help water systems all across the state be able to meet the drinking water standards,” Tim Davis, director of Utah’s Division of Drinking Water, told The Salt Lake Tribune.

There are nearly 1.3 million equivalent residential connections in Utah, which are managed by around 1,200 water systems, according to Davis. Those systems are typically controlled by cities, districts, counties, private businesses or even individuals.

Many of those water systems are struggling to deal with federal regulations, increased demand and the ongoing drought, making water management harder and more expensive, Davis said.

The bill from Watkins proposed a fee on all public water systems, charging them up to $1.20 per year for each home or equivalent residential connection they service. Assuming the cost would be passed on to ratepayers, an individual, at most, would have to pay an additional 10 cents per month.

The bill would raise approximately $1.5 million ongoing beginning in 2023. The funds would go into a restricted account to improve, maintain and expand public water systems around the state.

When presenting to the committee, Watkins and Davis repeatedly emphasized the plan’s equitable method of distributing costs around Utah to fund the account, but multiple committee members expressed concern over just that issue.

Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, wondered why such support couldn’t come internally from each city as the need arose.

“When I was on the city council in my city, we had an E. coli outbreak that we handled internally, and all was well,” she said. “So why do we need this extra fee? I mean, does every ratepayer in the state have to pay into this in order to benefit maybe some of the really, really smaller cities?”

Davis admitted that the vast majority of the fund would come from larger water systems but said they stood to benefit from the bill just as much as their smaller counterparts.

“With Ogden, with Provo, for example, those systems, they may benefit from the new ability for us to help them master plan, to make sure that when they’re master planning, we are there at the table to make sure there is a design to make sure they have a capacity to meet the drinking water standards in the future.”

After the presentation, questions and public comment, the committee ultimately decided to not move the bill forward, a decision which Watkins supported.

“If we can get together those that have concerns, we certainly have time to work on the bill and make it so that it would be something that people could live with — or really support,” she said.

Davis, too, was satisfied with the meeting’s outcome.

“We got a lot of good input,” he said after exiting the meeting. “We’ve got to take it seriously and then just work with the legislative branch to make sure that we can ensure that all Utahns have access to safe, reliable drinking water, not just now, but into the future.”

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