Jacob Johnson: Why saving water in Utah may not save you money

In the current base-rate system, people who save water are chumps.

(Briana Scroggins | Special to The Tribune) Weber Basin’s Water Conservation Learning Garden has hundreds of ideas for xeriscaping or reducing water usage for lawns and gardens. A variety of plants, flowers and trees that require less water as well as rocks, mulch and structures for landscaping can be found at the Learning Garden in Layton on Saturday, June 12, 2021.

Did you know in most cities and towns across Utah, your monthly water bill is roughly the same whether you use 3,000 or 8,000 gallons? This is because most water services charge a base rate, up to a certain usage threshold. Not only does this practice do nothing to encourage water conservation, it’s also unfair.

We should eliminate — or severely reduce — base rates and usage thresholds from our water rate structures across the state. Every Utahn should demand these changes from their city council.

A disturbing number of reservoirs in the Southwest are at critically low levels. Newspapers are overflowing with stories about the Great Salt Lake, Lake Mead and Lake Powell drying up.

Just last week, the Bureau of Reclamation announced it will consider taking unilateral action to reduce water outflows from Lake Powell if the surrounding states can’t agree on their own strategy for water conservation. This precedent-breaking federal action, which could begin as soon as 2023, is meant to keep Glen Canyon Dam from dropping below water levels that would prevent hydropower generation.

We’ve been overusing water in the West for decades. We’ve been in a drought for decades. And still, Utah has some of the highest water usage rates per capita in the nation — almost double the national average. One big reason for this: Water in Utah is cheap.

I looked up water rates in 13 disparate cities and towns across Utah, from St. George to Sandy to Vernal. They all use a base rate for water billing, ranging anywhere from $15 to $60. Many have a usage threshold, meaning you pay the base rate — and only the base rate — up to a certain amount of water used.

For instance, residents of Francis pay a base rate of $30 on up to 15,000 gallons. That means the Andersons, who zeroscaped their yard and reduced water usage to 3,000 gallons, get the same monthly bill as the Bakers, who filled their above-ground pool twice this month and used 14,000 gallons. Base rates do nothing to encourage conservation. Needless to say, it’s also wildly unfair to the Andersons.

This problem isn’t specific to Francis. On average, the base rates I looked up covered a usage threshold of 8,000 gallons. That means a typical Utahn could save (or waste) 250 gallons of water per day and see no significant change to their monthly bill.

Reducing base rates and usage thresholds would not only encourage water conservation — it would also give Utah families more power to control their spending in a time when inflation has us all looking for ways to save a few bucks.

To be sure, there’s a reason so many cities and towns have adopted a base rate structure: stability. Base rates let water services collect similar fees in the summer and winter. Base rates also insulate them from differences and changes in individual water usage. But therein lies the problem.

In the current system, water-conscientious people are chumps. They’re just subsidizing their neighbors’ hour-long showers and green lawns. Getting serious about water conservation should be a decision left up to the individual user, not the city. Because if we don’t find ways to save water—and fast—the federal government is poised to step in and make those decisions for us.

The state law that started most cities and towns on this path to base rates and usage thresholds also mandated yearly city council meetings to review water rates and conservation efforts. You should look up your water rates, decide if your base rate is fair, and let your city council know how you feel.

Jacob Johnson

Jacob Johnson grew up in Taylorsville, earned bachelor’s degrees in political science and rhetorical studies from the University of Utah and is now a graduate student at New York University’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, studying public management and policy.