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In our opinion: Use market forces and not social shaming to conserve on water usage

Published: Saturday, July 26 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Updated: Saturday, July 26 2014 8:29 a.m. MDT

Southern Utah faces many of the same drought problems as Southern California. What the state can’t afford to do, however, is to follow California’s misguided solutions. Rather than social shaming, let market forces take care of the rationing.

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Southern Utah faces many of the same drought problems as Southern California. What the state can’t afford to do, however, is to follow California’s misguided solutions.

In other words, Utah needs to be smart enough to use market forces, not public shaming or artificial restraints on usage, to regulate dwindling supplies.

Unfortunately, the state’s recent decision to restrict water from the Virgin River to only those farmers and residents who have rights dating back to 1900 or earlier, with thousands of dollars in fines for violators, indicates the Utah Department of Natural Resources doesn’t get it.

Utahns need to bear the actual costs of using water, then they will adjust their behavior accordingly. This means the state first must remove all general sales and property tax subsidies that artificially reduce the price of water. In a drought as severe as the current one, water prices would soar; and when water becomes expensive, people would use less of it out of self-interest. There would be no need to restrict people from washing their cars, for instance. The price of water would accomplish that.

By contrast, consider the consequences of California’s approach, which consists mainly of official pronouncements against wasting water and huge fines for letting sprinklers run into the streets.

As NBC News reported recently, this has led to a new hashtag on Twitter, #droughtshaming. Californians are posting photos of people they believe use too much water. Some cities have set up hotlines residents can use to snitch on their neighbors, who might face fines as high as $500 as a result.

Unbelievably, the manager of Sacramento’s Utilities Department told NBC he was “pleasantly surprised” at how people are turning each other in. It shows they get the message, he said.

It also shows government has sunk to encouraging public discord and vigilantism. What happens when this policy foments violence, as it almost certainly will? What happens when someone decides to retaliate against a neighbor by filing a false complaint or cleverly using Photoshop to present a false picture? Shouldn’t government be encouraging the peaceful co-existence of residents, rather than deliberately turning them against each other?

There is no denying the St. George area faces a huge water challenge, with little sign that the drought will abate any time soon. Water managers should consider many different approaches to this problem, including studying the technologies used in other water-challenged parts of the world, such as Israel.

But market forces, which regulate usage without turning decent people into arrogant snitches, must be a part of that approach. Water rates could be tiered, as they already are in some areas, to allow cheaper supplies for indoor residential use, which consumes only 4 percent of Utah water, and more expensive supplies for other uses.

Current policies should be abandoned. After all, what is magical about the year 1900? It is a random designation likely to lead to frustrations and bad feelings.

In the West, water has been called more precious than gold and more likely to start a fight than an insult to someone’s family. Why throw matches into such an incendiary mix? Let market forces take care of the rationing.

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