SALT LAKE CITY — This week in 1982, President Ronald Reagan visited Utah. He toured Welfare Square, run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Then he spoke in Hooper, where thousands of people turned out despite cold temperatures and lots of rain.
The Weber County Sheriff’s Mounted Posse gave him a badge, which, he joked, would help him, “stop some of the highway robbery that’s going on in Washington.” He ended the speech on a serious note, calling for a spiritual renewal nationwide.
Did you catch that? It was cold and raining — this exact time of year.
Look outside. See anything like that now? I thought so.
Life in the West — even in the era of tap water, air conditioning and plentiful supermarkets — is a constant struggle against natural forces that test the limits of endurance. Often, nature here acts as a huckster or a carnival barker, making things appear differently than they really are. We trust nature too much, never suspecting her of affinity fraud.
That may be why, as the website ilovehistory.utah.gov notes, the Cumsee family decided to buy land in Iron County back in 1912, after seeing it for the first time. Rain had been plentiful that year. The grass was green. Wild horses frolicked. Pools of fresh water shimmered. What could go wrong?
You could answer that, I’m sure. Not long after they signed the deed, a drought settled in. Their diamond investment turned to paste, and then to dust.
We’re turning to dust again. Experts say conditions are particularly harsh all over the West because the climate is changing. I’m not going to get into the causes. But I am going to get into what we ought to do about it.
Simply put, we have to get people to start paying the actual cost of the water they use. It’s the only way to make sure we still have enough of it as millions more people move in.
The Utah Drought Review and Reporting Committee met this week. That, in and of itself, is not a good sign. According to law, the committee meets only when drought conditions reach a critical level. It hadn’t met in almost 10 years.
Six counties in Utah have declared disasters due to a lack of rain, qualifying them for some federal assistance. Farmers and ranchers are suffering huge financial losses. Grazing land is disappearing. Trout are being moved to hatcheries because natural streams are dry. Fires this summer cost millions more than state officials had budgeted. Reservoirs are at 65 percent of capacity statewide.
That could change with a few good storms and a heavy white winter. Or we could find ourselves in an even worse circumstance next spring, with runoff at a trickle and a heavy sun pounding down.
The prudent thing, of course, is to pray for the former and plan for the latter. The meeting didn’t focus on it, but sooner or later water officials are going to have to address ways to get people to use less of a dwindling resource. The most common fallback strategy is to impose water restrictions, force people to ration and do as California did a few years ago — encourage people to shame water wasters on social media.
That would be the wrong approach.
Right now, a lot of water districts receive a good deal of money from property taxes. This allows them to keep water rates artificially low. Even though some of them charge people higher rates the more water they use, those rates still don’t reflect the true cost.
When something is inexpensive, people tend to use more of it. We travel more when gas is cheap. We buy more clothes than our ancestors could have dreamed of, among other things, a good pair of jeans cost about $20 on Amazon.
Get rid of the tax subsidies, then raise everyone’s rates to reflect the precious resource they’re buying.
Charge people less for drinking and showering than for watering lawns. Build smartphone apps that alert them when their monthly usage is about to bump them into a higher rate category.
If we want to be able to drink no matter what the clouds decide to do, conservation has to become something people can’t afford to ignore.
Reagan’s speech all those years ago came near the start of a water year so wet State Street became a river in the spring.
A visitor might have seen that and figured Utah to be a lush, green oasis. Those of us who live here shouldn’t be so easily fooled.