I like interactive websites that let you pretend you’re a politician faced with a difficult problem. The U.S. Geological Survey site has one that makes you a mayor in a city with a water crisis. What will you do?
Fortunately, I know the answer to that, because the website also calculates the total results from everyone who plays, broken down by state.
Of the 686 Utahns who had participated as of Wednesday, most chose water conservation as the answer. The least popular answer was to raise the price of water.
The buzzer you just imagined yourself hearing is to indicate you’re wrong.
Actually, that’s debatable, at least according to the parameters of the game, which asks you to do what’s best for your community and get re-elected.
Higher water prices lead to angry people, which tends to lead to someone different being elected mayor.
But, regardless of the parameters, higher prices — or, in Utah’s case, market-level prices — would conserve water better than any other method.
Utahns use 242 gallons of water per person each day. That was the figure provided this week to members of the Natural Resources, Agricultural and Environmental Quality Appropriations Subcommittee. The figure doesn’t include water used for agriculture.
This is no small matter for an arid Western state that, save Nevada, is the driest in the nation. Water in Utah has been remarkably well managed, when you consider how scarce a resource it is, but it has to be managed better. The state’s growth rate ought to make that obvious. So should a prolonged drought that, with the exception of a few wet years, dates back to the 1990s.
The state is working with water providers to fix leaks in the system. That, they said, would save at least 15 percent. The Deseret News quoted Jim Behunin, audit supervisor with the Office of the Legislative Auditor General, saying this could save more water than any conservation effort.
That has the ring of dry-eyed truth, especially if conservation consists of trying to shame people into using less.
But an even more effective way exists. In Utah, much of the actual price of delivering water is subsidized by property taxes. That keeps the cost of water artificially low.
Any economist will tell you that the more you pay for something, the less of it you use. Public shaming campaigns, water restrictions and educational efforts have led to a decrease in consumption nationwide, but market-level pricing would get the job done more effectively.
If Utah took away property tax subsidies, and if water districts implemented pricing structures that charged little up to a certain point, then drastically more after that, people would learn to conserve — even if it meant re-landscaping their yards with drought-resistant plants and spending less time in the shower.
California, long the king of public-shaming campaigns (a few years ago, people were encouraged to report on neighbors they felt were wasting water), now has a law requiring water districts to cut per capita usage to 55 gallons per person each day by 2022, and to 50 gallons by 2030. The standards will vary a bit according to climate, but they make Utahns look as if they are drowning themselves for sport.
It will be interesting to see how each district decides to comply. Shaming alone won’t get the job done.
The interactive USGS website doesn’t just give you, the fictional mayor of a parched city, a list of options to fight the problem. It also lists potential pros and cons with each option.31 comments on this story
The worst of these is to impose mandatory restrictions, such as odd and even watering days depending on address. The site says you may be prohibited from watering on Monday, but you are sure to make up for that on Tuesday. You’ll also likely grow resentful.
However, raising the price of water, the site notes, will work, even if it might make people angry.
Two years ago, that potential anger may have been what derailed a bill the Utah Legislature considered, which would have lowered property tax subsidies to 15 percent or less of a district’s revenue.
Considering Utah isn’t getting any wetter or less populated, lawmakers may want to try that again.