Utah Foundation launches new series on how Utahns pay for their water

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Given Utah’s position as both one of the driest and one of the fastest-growing states, getting water management right is critical.

Among the most basic – and contentious – components of water management is how we pay for water, with property taxes versus user fees at the heart of the debate. Utah Foundation’s new Paying for Water Series will examine the key areas of concern related to this debate, including conservation, fairness and practical considerations. The series builds on Utah Foundation’s in-depth research into the many dozens of water providers serving residents of the state.

Today, Utah Foundation releases the first report in the series, which provides an overview of Utah’s waterscape and the structures and challenges surrounding it. High and Dry: Water Supply, Management and Funding in Utah, provides the necessary background on water use, water providers and users, and water finance in Utah.

Key findings of the study include:

  • When it comes to water policy, Utah has a complex range of stakeholders, including a variety of water users and beneficiaries, as well as at least 308 public water suppliers.
  • Because Utah is both one of the fastest growing and driest states in the nation, the challenge of water management is a pressing matter.
  • Utahns divert more than 5 million acre-feet of water for use, but consume less than 3 million acre-feet, meaning that a significant portion of Utah’s diverted water is reused, rather than simply consumed.
  • Less than 20% of the total diverted water is distributed through public utility systems. Of this water, residential users consume more than two-thirds – mostly for outdoor purposes.
  • Per capita water use from public utility systems varies widely based on climate, geography, economy and culture. The Wasatch Front has relatively low per-capita use, while south-central Utah has relatively high use. (Agricultural water use falls outside of the public systems. The per capita numbers reflect potable and secondary residential, institutional, industrial and commercial water only.)
  • In surveying the tiered rate structures of water providers across the state, Utah Foundation found a wide variety of approaches.
  • While it is unclear how many water providers outside Utah use property taxes alongside water rates, there are successful examples of both types of water providers: those that use property taxes to lower water rates and those that do not. 
  • Most Utah water providers have chosen not to directly impose property taxes; however, because of overlapping jurisdictions and because some providers are far larger than others, more than 90% of Utahns live within the jurisdiction of a water provider that collects property taxes.

Utah Foundation President Peter Reichard pointed out that the debate over property taxes versus water rates has endured for years, without a comprehensive look at pros and cons. 

“Water providers nationally take varying approaches to paying their bills,” Reichard said. “But the real question is not whether Utah water providers are unusual, but rather whether the approaches they take are best suited to the needs of our state. The Paying for Water Series is a major undertaking meant to help the public and policymakers address that question with clear eyes.”

The study High and Dry: Water Supply, Management and Funding in Utah is available on the Utah Foundation website at www.utahfoundation.org. Thanks to the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation for providing grant support for the Paying for Water Series.