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‘Droughts Don’t Cause Water Scarcity — People Do’: Experts Say Utah Needs To Permanently Reduce Water Use

A photo of Lake Powell.
Peter Fitzgerald
Wikimedia Commons
Lake Powell is currently around 34% full. It is projected to reach a record-low level this year.

Utah is in the midst of its worst drought in decades. While state officials have focused on it to explain the water shortage Utah is facing, experts say there’s more to the story.

Brian Richter owns a consulting firm called Sustainable Waters. He said droughts don’t cause water scarcity — people do.

Richter said states in the Colorado River Basin, like Utah, are already using too much water based on the river’s average annual output.

“We really need to take stock of how much water we’re using and what we’re using it for, and start a conversation about whether or not there are things we can do to lessen our dependence on those water supplies,” he said.

A photo of a map that documents water consumption and available water.
Courtesy of Sustainable Waters
Courtesy of Sustainable Waters
Major cities in Arizona, California, and Nevada, like Las Vegas and Phoenix, have pursued aggressive water conservation measures in the past decade.

Consumption exceeds the Colorado River’s annual flow most years, so suppliers pull water out of reservoirs like Lake Powell and Lake Mead to make up the difference.

But that won’t work forever.

In order to reduce Utah’s overall use and ward off future water shortages, state lawmakers need to step up, according to Zach Frankel with the Utah Rivers Council.

He said one thing elected officials could do to help is force water suppliers to increase tiered rates across the state.

Right now, Utahns pay some of the lowest rates in the West, according to Frankel. A 2010 analysis by the Utah Division of Water Resources found the average water rate in Utah was $1.34 per gallon. Only Idaho’s was lower, at $1.26.

Meanwhile, Utahns use the highest amount of public supply water — meaning it’s delivered by a supplier like a city or service district.

“When we make water really cheap, we make water use really high,” Frankel said. “It’s just consumer behavior.”

The best way to increase rates, according to Frankel, is by bumping the price per gallon up significantly after a customer’s use passes a certain threshold. That way, costs only go up for high-use consumers.

A map that documents water rate prices and water volume used in several big cities.
Courtesy of Utah Rivers Council
Courtesy of Utah Rivers Council
Utahns pay some of the lowest water rates in the West.

Frankel said water rates in Utah are also heavily subsidized by property taxes. His organization has tried to pass legislation to change that, but he said water service districts in Utah opposed the move.

“If they raise the cost of water, they sell less water, then they’ll make less money,” he said. “They’re water salesmen at some level.”

He said state lawmakers could also invest in infrastructure to stop agricultural water waste, like lining irrigation canals, rather than building expensive pipeline projects to move more water out of reservoirs.

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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