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This Is What Really, Really Cheap Water Is Actually Costing Utah

The state's widespread practice of supplying unlimited untreated water to homes may be part of the reason it has to spend billions on a new pipeline and dam.
March 13, 2018, 11am PDT | Katharine Jose
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Wasatch Mountains

Compared to other states, Utah is among the driest, among the thirstiest, and among the fastest-growing; it's also the only state that provides, to a significant number of residential properties, "untreated agricultural water from canals, sold at an unmetered flat rate, to irrigate their lawns, gardens and landscaping." 

It's called "secondary water," writes Matt Weiser at Water Deeply, and the practice stems from the unusual way that water rights in Utah developed as agricultural land gave way to residential construction. 

"In nearly every other community in the nation, when farms were converted to housing the irrigation water was usually sold to other farms or allowed to remain in-stream. And new homes used treated drinking water for outdoor irrigation as well as in their kitchens and baths – all measured and billed according to a single meter at the curb." 

But in Utah, 61 percent of urban water suppliers allow unlimited secondary water use, usually for $10 to $15 dollar per month. 

Without meters, it's more or less impossible to obtain definitive statistics on water use in Utah, but one study did show residents of Salt Lake County—which does not supply secondary water—used 78 percent less water than residents of two neighboring counties. 

Recently, the unbridled use of secondary water has been the target of criticism as Utah debates two enormous, expensive water projects. The first is a dam on the Bear River, which is the most significant tributary to the shrinking Great Salt Lake; the other is a pipeline from Lake Powell, a reservoir that has challenges of its own 

Some conservationists and fiscal conservatives would rather see the state try to reduce water use first, but both groups expect resistance. Weiser speaks to the state senator who recently introduced a bill to require meters on secondary water supplies across the entire state; the politician succinctly comments, I can tell you right now, the cities are not going to like that.

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Published on Monday, March 5, 2018 in Water Deeply
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