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Utah's thirst for water comes with $13.7 billion price tag

Published: Friday, Oct. 26 2012 5:34 p.m. MDT

Workers from Alder Construction and the Metropolitan Water District work Monday, Oct. 22, 2012, on a project to replace and construct new underground storage reservoirs near I-215 and 3300 South.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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.

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