Proposed Water Legislation Could Drastically Change Water Use in Utah

Utah State Capitol 06State Sen. Scott Jenkins is moving forward this session with several bills that could – in years ahead – lead to significant changes in how Utahns deal with water.

Tuesday the Senate passed Jenkins’ SB28.

Also Tuesday Jenkins, R-Plain City, introduced SB92.

The former could lead to higher water payments on your house – depending on how frugal and watch-conscience you become.

The second is the rare encroachment by state lawmakers into zoning ordinances of counties and cities – long the dangerous playground of special interest groups, most recently outdoor billboard firms.

Water is, literally, the lifeblood of desert states like Utah. And while the state is currently well above snowpack this winter, drought is always just a year or two away.

Jenkins led out with some new water conservation laws last year.

In this session, SB28 would require all of the state’s water districts to come up with a plan that would assess water fees based on an increasing tier of use and time of usage.

If you use a lot of water on your lawn, and you water mid-day, you would fall into a higher fee assessment tier – i.e. you would pay more for each cubic feet used.

SB92 is short and to the point: Local counties and cities CAN NOT require via zoning that you plant grass.

In a UtahPolicy interview, Jenkins recognizes that historically state lawmakers have stayed away from telling local officials how to zone property.

It is one of the big bugaboos among GOP legislators – Big Brother state doesn’t tell private property owners what to do with their land, nor tell local officials how to zone property inside their borders.

Ken Bullock, head of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, says legislators shouldn’t be too quick to tell local officials how to zone – even for a good cause like water conservation.

“We don’t like mandates,” said Bullock. Cities and local water districts are already working hard on water conservation.

“I don’t know of any city that still mandates the use of grass” on any private properties, said Bullock.

That did not used to be the case. And many city-dwellers know at one time, not too long ago if not still occurring, city zoning ordinances did say that a parking strip in front of you house could only be planted in this way or that – usually grass.

Have dead vegetation in the parking strip, or put rocks in the strip, and you could be cited for a zoning violation.

“It is legitimate to talk about such things” as Jenkins’ ban on grass-required zoning, says Bullock. But hopefully, negotiations can be worked out where lawmakers don’t have actually to act in telling local officials how to zone, he added.

But Jenkins says there are real problems out there.

“A guy has 10 acres of land for his business. But he’s only using three acres at first. And he has to plant all the other acres into grass or even other landscaping to look good?” Jenkins asks.

SB92 goes even further than grass.

It says that in a commercial or industrial zone, a city or county can’t make the owner landscape the property at all, as long as it is fenced in a material so walkers-by can’t see the undeveloped land inside.

Jenkins’ bill does not deal with zoning for fire code or health and safety issues related to keeping a property in some kind of repair or acceptable condition.

“We have to conserve water,” said Jenkins.

He added that SB28 might not end up costing a homeowner or business owner more in water bills.

In fact, a large part of the act would provide data to property owners to let them know they are using too much water and how they could cut down on that.

Jenkins said he was using a lot of water in his home at one point – three minor girls taking long showers just part of it.

His local water district started tier pricing, and he got a three-month bill for nearly $1,000.

He took action. And soon got his bill down to $90, he said.

Las Vegas found a way to increase population by 60,000 people, but now actually uses less water than before – in large part to tier water usage, he added.

“I’ve talked to officials in Vegas and Arizona, and they say we are crazy (in Utah) not to require tier water rates.”

SB28 passed 26-1 and now goes to the House.