It is clear that some of the infrastructure is aging and needs attention. It is a matter of managing expectations so people are not surprised when it comes. —Mike Wilson, manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Salt Lake and Sandy

SALT LAKE CITY — The ability to turn on the tap, flush the toilet and water the garden over the next 20 years will be a multibillion-dollar challenge in Utah because of new water and sewer systems that state officials say must be put in place. 

A statewide list of water projects, including their costs, is being shopped to Utah lawmakers, along with the warning that it is better to plan now and pay now, rather than wait until dams fail or taps run dry.

The numbers are staggering, adding up to $13.7 billion. And that doesn't include billions identified for controversial projects such as the Lake Powell Pipeline or the Bear River Development project.

"People have a hard time getting excited about water and sewer projects, even though they are very fundamental and basic components of our day-to-day life," said Mike Wilson, manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Salt Lake and Sandy.

The Utah divisions of water quality and water resources and other public agencies compiled the list of water infrastructure needs in Utah that provides just one glimpse of a national problem decades in the making.

A roundtable highlighting the water infrastructure challenges across the country estimated the cost to maintain and replace drinking water systems alone at $1 trillion. Hosted by the Conservation Leadership Partnership, the discussion earlier this month took on new urgency as most of the nation continues to recover from the worst drought in 50 years.

The partnership is an initiative seeking to broker new alternatives to persistent conservation problems, emphasizing the need for public-private partnerships and entrepreneurship and "ground-up" solutions.

"What we are advocating for is a dialogue. Let's have these discussions, rather than having a monologue or a speech coming from federal regulators or state regulators," said Bob Young, a member of the council and former mayor of Augusta, Ga.

Lessons from Georgia

Young knows firsthand the perils of political and community leaders ignoring fixes or replacements of water and sewer systems. In 1998, the Augusta water system collapsed and the "day of reckoning came," Young said.

"There were very serious issues, including not having enough water to put out fires and certain sections of the city where there was no water," he said.

The water crisis spelled the political demise of the mayor in charge at the time, and propelled Young into office.

He now pushes for water accounts to be managed like a private business — an enterprise fund allowed to build up reserves.

"You put it outside of politics," Young said, detailing a $450 million bond with built-in rate increases that was put into play to fix the Georgia system.

"We embedded the rate increase in the bond documents, and that told future mayors and commissioners they couldn't start playing around with the rate. All they could do is collect it," he said.

Walt Baker, director of the Utah Division of Water Quality, said water systems have money set aside for operations and maintenance, but wholesale replacement is often ignored because of the huge costs.

"I see it firsthand in communities where the most important thing for them is to keep their rates low," Baker said. "They do that by not paying the piper with replacement costs."

It's a tough sell, he concedes, for local community leaders to tell residents that even in good times, when nothing is broken, rates are going up 3 percent each year.

"These systems are out of sight and out of mind," Baker said. "Some communities, to their detriment and unhappiness, are loath to raise rates, and when something cataclysmic happens, that is when you see the huge rates come. But they'd rather get beat up harshly every 10 years then face it every year."

Utah projects

Richard Bay, general manager of the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District, recalls a 20 percent hike in 1990 before he took the helm.

"They were trying to put off rate increases and avoid capital increases, but that day of reckoning came," Bay said.

Residents howled at the sudden spike in their monthly water bills.

"It was so painful," he said.

The district has a long-range financial plan that socks money away and targets no more than an annual 5 percent increase.

Revenue, plus the district's ability to bond, is helping it put down millions in water delivery projects to try to keep up with new growth. It chipped in $40 million for its share of the Provo Reservoir Canal and another $28 million to pump and treat contaminated groundwater. Additionally, it plans on spending $82 million so it can grab its share of thousands of acre-feet of water being developed in a northern Utah County aquifer.

"Our service population area is not only growing, it is accelerating," Bay said. "Our 600,000 people will double in the next four decades. And each project seems like we have to reach farther and farther away, so each project is becoming more expensive and more complicated than the last one."

Wilson said the Salt Lake district began planning its replacement of a concrete storage reservoir more than 10 years ago.

The reservoir sits at the end of an aqueduct that brings water from Deer Creek into the Salt Lake Valley. It holds 40 million gallons of water — enough to meet the needs of Salt Lake and Sandy area residents for one day, except in summer when demand would nearly triple.

But the reservoir — which is actually two cells that each hold 20 million gallons — was built in 1951 and, while still functional, does not meet current seismic standards.

Over time, Wilson said the district had enough built up in reserves that it made financial sense to move ahead with the $42 million project, but it was only with foresight of long-term planning.

"It is clear that some of the infrastructure is aging and needs attention," he said. "It is a matter of managing expectations so people are not surprised when it comes."

Beyond upgrades, however, is the very real need to ensure a water delivery system is functioning to meet basic life and public safety needs, Young stressed.

A community water system survey released this year by the Utah Division of Drinking Water estimated construction and repair costs to those local systems at more than $450 million over the next four years.

The survey, compiled from 312 districts' responses, found that just under a third of the districts reported that their systems had fair or poor fire protection capabilities — significant if you happen to live in the service area and your house is on fire.

Baker said it takes financial savvy and foresight — as well as political will — to muster a savings account that can help pay for huge infrastructure needs and to put in upgrades to keep pace with growth.

"There's not a lot of heroism in doing that," he said. "Cities like to build trails, parks and statues. Bringing in a sewer system is not very sexy. The tendency is to let that happen under some other mayor."

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But Young said the value of a good functioning water and sewer system is at the core of daily life necessities.

"How pretty is that park if you are in middle of a drought and your system cannot provide water to plants and they all die or dry up and become brown?" he asked. "Or what happens if your system does not provide water to take care of landscaping as well as enough water to cook or take care of personal sanitation? What happens then?"

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