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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Crews work to repair a broken water main on South Medical Drive at the University of Utah on Tuesday, June 12, 2018. The issue of water infrastructure, water delivery area and fair treatment of ratepayers has caught Utah lawmakers' attention.

SALT LAKE CITY — When you turn on the tap, rinse out the sink or do a load of dishes, do you know where the water is coming from and if the provider will fix a water main if it breaks?

The answers may not be that simple.

Over the years, cities have bought up other water systems, extended delivery of water outside their boundaries and often charge higher rates to residents who don't live within the city.

Sen. Daniel Thatcher, a Republican legislator from West Valley City, told his colleagues the last thing he wants to do is get entangled in water law, but to him, this is a matter of fair play among cities.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Crews work to repair a broken water main on South Medical Drive at the University of Utah on Tuesday, June 12, 2018. The issue of water infrastructure, water delivery area and fair treatment of ratepayers has caught Utah lawmakers' attention.

"We don't want to go down the rabbit holes of water law, but I do believe we have a very specific interest in how the public is being treated by political subdivisions and how the political subdivisions are interfacing with each other," Thatcher said during a legislative meeting last week.

There is a level of discomfort for us because as water experts we are being asked to look at some political issues. There will obviously be political decisions within these recommendations that will affect political subdivisions.
Mike Styler, executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources

Thatcher is chair of the Political Subdivisions Interim Committee, which heard a presentation Wednesday on a water transparency issue that is among four water-related topics under intense scrutiny this summer. Multiple working groups are coming up with a list of recommendations for the Legislature by September.

The work has been complex but productive, said Mike Styler, executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources.

While the committees include a bevy of water law experts, Styler said the questions popping up have long-range political implications.

"There is a level of discomfort for us because as water experts we are being asked to look at some political issues," Styler said. "There will obviously be political decisions within these recommendations that will affect political subdivisions."

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Water flows from a water main break between Wasatch Boulevard and I-125 east in Millcreek is pictured on Friday, Sept. 22, 2017. The issue of water infrastructure, water delivery area and fair treatment of ratepayers has caught Utah lawmakers' attention.

Rep. Kim Coleman, who ran a water transparency bill last session only to see it mired down with questions, said current practices don't protect ratepayers from cost and service abuses if they live outside a city's boundaries.

"People are at the mercy of that municipality," said Coleman, R-West Jordan, adding some residents are part of "surplus" water contracts that can be terminated at any time with little notice.

Evelyn Everton, Sandy City's deputy mayor who also spoke on behalf of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, said it is historic practice for cities to acquire water rights and have enough supply on hand to survive drought and plan for future growth.

My concern is residents who are being served water but don't know who is clearly responsible and who owns that infrastructure that is delivering that water to them.
Marie Owens, director of the Utah Division of Drinking Water

Everton added that Salt Lake City recently informed Sandy City that its supply will be curtailed in light of the Inland Port and new prison developments slated to come online. The city is now shopping for water elsewhere.

She rejected the notion that cities "hoard" water at the expense of others.

"These agreements among cities have been working."

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Repair crews respond to a water main break between Wasatch Boulevard and I-125 east in Millcreek on Friday, Sept. 22, 2017. The issue of water infrastructure, water delivery area and fair treatment of ratepayers has caught Utah lawmakers' attention.

Coleman, however, said she believes there is a water grab going on.

"There is a 100-year-old law on the books that allows cities of the first class to have near endless ability to grab water," she said. "We have seen fairly aggressive movements that way. The ability for emerging cities to acquire water appropriation outright is precluded and leaves them dependent on cities that have already gone out and grabbed water."

She said the law may have made sense for that period of time in Utah's history, but she wonders if it is good law now.

"We question if that still makes sense. We have a lot of cities emerging as cities of the first class."

Nancy Carlson-Gotts, president of the Association of Community Councils Together, urged support of Coleman's transparency bill in the coming session.

The group includes 16 community councils representing more than 140,000 residents.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Crews remove mud after a water main break between Wasatch Boulevard and I-125 east in Millcreek on Friday, Sept. 22, 2017. The issue of water infrastructure, water delivery area and fair treatment of ratepayers has caught Utah lawmakers' attention.
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A Millcreek resident, Carlson-Gotts, said she went to a Salt Lake City Council meeting to question a rate increase and was rebuffed and directed outside the chambers to look at a budget document.

"We want to know what we are being charged and where (those fees) are going," she said.

Marie Owens, director of the Utah Division of Drinking Water, said greater transparency is needed among water delivery systems.

"My concern is residents who are being served water but don't know who is clearly responsible and who owns that infrastructure that is delivering that water to them."

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Damage from a water main break between Wasatch Boulevard and I-125 east in Millcreek is pictured on Friday, Sept. 22, 2017. The issue of water infrastructure, water delivery area and fair treatment of ratepayers has caught Utah lawmakers' attention.