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