Those two words have traditionally been critical factors behind most infrastructure and construction projects in the West, but lately they have been altogether forgotten when it comes to water planning. Across the West, proposed high-stakes projects to capture water resources are generating well-deserved controversy because every one of them ignores cheaper, more sensible alternatives that are more sustainable in the long term.
Utah is no exception. The proposed 139-mile Lake Powell pipeline would take a $1.2 billion chunk of future statewide sales tax revenues for a water project primarily serving just one region of the state, Washington County. A $1.2 billion expenditure is equal to about 30 percent of the entire 2012 budget for the State of Utah. (Utah State Budget )
Critics rightly complain. They say the Washington County Water Conservancy District needs to pursue more affordable, local options before asking the state for such an enormous amount of cash. Even today, property taxes currently cover more than half of a customer's bill, effectively subsidizing water rates that otherwise might encourage wiser water use.
The Utah Taxpayers Association argues that obligating future sales tax revenue to specific needs — especially in this weak economy — is bad fiscal policy. Other critics argue that the project drains not just Lake Powell water, but much-needed funds from schools and other state priorities. And legislative opponents argue that it's fundamentally unwise public policy to tie the hands of future legislators.
The burden of the pipeline's cost would likely fall to both statewide taxpayers and residents of Washington County. The Washington County Water Conservancy District argues that future growth will pay for the project, but if that growth doesn't happen, existing ratepayers would foot the bill. Similar schemes have backfired in other western cities: Residents in Colorado Springs, Colo., saw rates rise by 40 percent annually in 2009 and 2010 and 12 percent in 2010 and 2011 they expect four more years of 12 percent rate hikes. All to pay for their new $1.2 billion water project — a project that was supposed to be funded by new growth.
In Washington County, as with proposed water mega-projects in Nevada and Colorado, far cheaper and simpler alternatives are there for the taking. Alternatives like conservation, among others. These alternatives for meeting future water needs and supporting growth don't tie current and future residents to massive debt.
Conservation has the biggest potential. Residents of Washington County use up to twice as much water as residents of many other southwestern cities, including arid metropolises such as Phoenix, Ariz., and Albuquerque, N.M. Cities around the West have invested in conservation programs that, across the board, cost less than new supply projects and provide real water savings. For example, through its landscape rebate program, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which provides water to Las Vegas, reduced water use by 30 percent in just the last 10 years.
Conservation is one piece. Expanded use of recycled water; flexible transfers between agricultural users and urban areas; and wise use of existing aquifer storage are also all part of the puzzle. Perhaps most importantly, they are strategies that allow cities to increase water supplies incrementally, as growth occurs, and with much smaller increments of funding, from state coffers and elsewhere.
Utah decision-makers should double-down on reducing consumption before embarking on the financially risk-laden and uncertain route of increasing supply through a giant new structural project. A commitment to cost and efficiency is common sense, as well as good economic and environmental stewardship.
Sharlene Leurig is senior manager of the water and insurance programs at Ceres, a national coalition of investors and public interest groups. Peter Metcalf is chief executive officer of Salt Lake City-based Black Diamond Inc., an outdoor recreation equipment company.
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