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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Sprinklers water a field in Herriman on Friday, Aug. 8, 2014.

SALT LAKE CITY — The state's water resources board unanimously approved a new program to award up to $3 million a year in low-interest loans to water providers that want to install meters on secondary systems.

Todd Stonely, investigations manager at the Utah Division of Water Resources, said meters on secondary water systems represent an "engineering solution" to the problem of excess or needless water consumption for outdoor irrigation.

In systems that have moved to meters, water savings have proved significant, according to Faye Rutishauser, the state's water conservation coordinator.

"True water conservation is about gallons saved," she said. "The areas that have installed meters have seen as much as a 40 percent decrease in water use."

Only a slim percentage of secondary water systems in Utah are metered, but new technology coupled with a growing consciousness around water conservation is starting to change that.

During this year's legislative session, lawmakers approved a concurrent resolution encouraging all systems to move to metering as a way to promote conservation.

Five years earlier, the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, in conjunction with several partners, initiated a pilot project to install secondary water meters in select areas and saw tremendous water savings.

In 2014, Saratoga Springs city leaders faced the grim prospect of developing additional, expensive water supplies to satisfy breakneck population growth of a little more than 1,000 people to close to 30,000 in 15 years' time.

"As growth occurred, we were seeing signficant consumption, and we were struggling to keep up, especially during peak irrigation demand," said Jeremy Lapin, the city's public works director. "There were ongoing discussions on meters and whether they would manage consumption to a reasonable level."

Steve Jones, with the engineering consultant firm of Hansen, Allen and Luce hired by the city, said in some instances people were applying two or three times the necessary water on their lawns in Saratoga Springs.

"Part of what was happening was unlimited water use and the system was not designed for that. It was running out of capacity," he said. "It took a little convincing, but the cost of putting in meters was going to be cheaper than developing enough water for everyone to have unlimited use."

The city approved spending $3.6 million to put every secondary water user on a metered system.

Even as about 4,000 meters were being installed in 2014, having workers in neighborhoods was already having an effect on water use as people began to realize what was happening, Jones said.

Over the 2015 to 2016 outdoor watering season, water use dropped by 11 percent, he said.

Both Jones and Lapin figure that, overall, the addition of meters to the city's secondary water system has resulted in significant water savings.

"We know we are saving at least 36 percent, and the savings may be as great as 55 percent if we did not meter and used a flat rate," Lapin said.

Residents, in general, liked transitioning to a metered system, he said.

"People understood that the water use was unsustainable and there were issues periodically when demand got so high that the system struggled to deliver that quantity of water," Lapin said.

Water users, too, understand that those who conserve and use less are paying a lower rate for water and not subsidizing the excesses of a neighbor, he added.

The city rolled out an online "irrigation calculator," well in advance of the move to meters, allowing residents to get an early idea of the financial impacts of the new system.

As more metering is implemented on secondary water systems, the Utah Division of Water Resources is hopeful the state can achieve signficant water savings.

As part of the new loan program — which will be offered every year — water providers will be required to adopt an educational component for the new billing statement or implement a tiered rate system.

More information can be obtained by emailing toddstonely@utah.gov.