In a wilder era, water wars were fought with Remingtons.
Such battles continue today, albeit with an arsenal of lawyers, petition drives and feasibility studies. The Wasatch Front frontier may be long-tamed, but development can't escape its desert past: Water is still a limited commodity, Utah's gold.Now a contemporary water war is escalating in Sandy. Officials at White City Water Improvement District accuse Sandy city of heating up the long-standing hostilities between the two entities.
In the coming days, scores of Sandy residents now being served by White City will be contacted by city-hired pollsters. Residents will be asked if they want to vote on whether to stick with White City service or be served by Sandy water.
"It will be a one-question survey: Do you want to vote on this issue?" said Sandy spokesman Rick Davis.
A new state law provides that municipal residents living within a county service district can pull out if their cities offer equivalent or better service and if a majority of the city users vote for with-drawal.
Davis said that city leaders don't really care what decision residents make, only that they have a chance to make a decision.
"The city has an interest because we have been approached by our citizens who feel like they want to participate in Sandy water programs," Davis said.
The upcoming poll, he adds, will help city leaders decide if calling for a vote is appropriate.
But White City's attorney, Paul Ashton, doesn't buy the city administration's passive posturing. He said the drive to withdraw about 2,000 Sandy residents from White City water service (about half its customers) has been championed from the top down.
Ashton points to a recent petition drive to withdraw from White City District. A letter from Sandy Mayor Tom Dolan attached to the petition includes statements that current White City customers would receive lower rates if they were serviced by Sandy.
Last month, Sandy completed a legally mandated feasibility study to determine if the city can economically provide drinking water to its residents living within the White City District.
The study concludes a withdrawal is "operationally feasible" for Sandy - at a cost.
The city would have to pay about $6.5 million to integrate Sandy connections now being served by White City into the Sandy system, according to the feasibility study.
But Ashton questions the $6.5 million figure, saying engineers who worked on the feasibility study were using old data, and he's alarmed by the wide gaps in cost estimates related to capital improvements needed to divide water systems.
"No one really knows how much a withdraw would cost," Ashton said. White City engineers are doing their own cost study.
Sandy's feasibility study, Ashton adds, may actually foil a withdrawal. State statute allows a withdrawal on condition that it doesn't affect the ability of either water entity to deliver quality service.
While the feasibility study says service to post-withdrawal White City and Sandy water customers would improve if the two entities integrated their infrastructure east of 1300 East, service to non-Sandy White City customers "would be difficult for (White City) to serve if (White City) wants to maintain an independent water system".
Ashton said White City has no intention to integrate its infrastructure, so withdrawal would hinder White City's current operating level, running counter to the statute.
Beyond that, White City officials argue they simply offer a better price and product than Sandy.
White City Water District Board of Trustees chairwoman Paulina Flint points to Dolan's statement in the petition letter that Sandy residents currently being served by White City would pay lower rates with city service.
That may be true for the minimum usage base price, but once Sandy customers pass those limits, the city's overage rates can't compete with White City, said Flint
"And more than 95 percent of our customers use more than their minimum amount each month," she said.
Mike Wilson, water manager for Sandy's department of public utilities, said while White City and Sandy use different minimum usage levels, he's confident city customers are getting the best deal.
"All total, (water's) going to be cheaper in Sandy," he said.
White City officials said they sell primarily untreated water pumped from Dimple Dell-area wells. Sandy, they add, uses primarily treated water.
Wilson countered both entities sell water that exceeds local quality and safety standards.
Quality and price issues aside, Ashton believes Sandy has long had its eye on White City water customers, citing a pair of earlier Sandy attempts to integrate.
Sandy's actions may also be prompted by infrastructure shortages, said Flint, pointing to the city's recent call for residents living in Sandy's southeast quadrant to voluntarily conserve water because of water treatment and delivery limitations.
Beyond that, Ashton feels Sandy views White City District "as an irritant," an island operating in the middle of one of Utah's largest cities.
Not so, said Sandy councilman Dennis Tenney: "It is our interest and obligation to look after the needs of Sandy residents."
Tenney said he regrets any animosity between the two communities, adding he looks forward to the coming weeks when he can look at the results of the poll and hear public comment on the "to vote or not to vote" issue.
On Sept. 15, the City Council will hold a public hearing on the withdrawal matter before deciding whether to call for a public vote.
Public hearings and petitions aside, Ashton wonders if a caveat from White City's water history will void the withdrawal effort.
In 1977, the original owners of the White City water system, White City Water Company, agreed to annexation of that portion of the unincorporated White City community east of 1300 East into Sandy in exchange for the city's pledge not to provide water to the annexed area.
White City Water Improvement District purchased the company in 1994, along with Sandy's promise to keep away from White City water users, Ashton said.
The recent legislation giving city residents the opportunity to withdraw from a county service district "cannot impair the right of contract," Ashton said.
That issue may yet be decided in court.