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Utah ready to commit $250 million to water conservation through secondary meters

Agricultural pivot irrigation in central Utah.
Lexi Perry
Agricultural pivot irrigation in central Utah.

Secondary water connections in Utah will be required to have a meter by 2030 and some lawmakers say this is a huge lift that will impact the state’s future. These are untreated water connections used for agriculture and outdoor landscaping.

HB 242 is sponsored by Rep. Val Peterson, R-Orem, and Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork. They estimate just metering consumption will lead to 20-40% water savings across the state.

“The amount of water that we should be able to save is the equivalent of almost a Deer Creek or a Jordanelle [reservoir] — it's significant,” McKell said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “I wish we could build another great big reservoir in the state of Utah to serve the Wasatch Front, that's probably not in the cards today.”

The price tag for the bill is $250 million, which will come from the federal government’s American Rescue Plan Act. That money will help water districts cover up to 70% of the costs for the first two years. After that, grant funding drops. If water suppliers don’t meet the deadline of Jan. 1, 2030, there will be financial penalties and they will not receive state funding for water-related purposes.

Peterson called this opportunity “generational” thanks to the federal funds.

The bill previously received pushback from some rural lawmakers because of its potential financial burden on smaller counties. It was substituted Wednesday by the Senate to let water suppliers in counties of less than 11,000 residents opt out if the cost of installing meters would be more than 25% of their budget. Lawmakers say they’ll need a “rigorous conservation plan” submitted to the state if they do so.

The bill passed 22-3 in the Senate and is back to the House to vote on again since there was a substitute. It was approved the first time 58-14.

“We can't conserve what we can't measure,” said Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, who sponsored the substitute. “We're not trying to do anything with [tiered water pricing]. All we're saying is that you can't conserve what you can't measure, and it's impossible to measure something just by looking at it as it's running out of a sprinkler or out of a hose somewhere.”

Environmental groups spoke in support of the bill during committee hearings. However, Utah Rivers Council Executive Director Zach Frankel told KUER Wednesday that this is a baby step in what the state needs to do. He said this is something simple the state should have done years ago.

Frankel said the $250 million toward the bill pales in comparison to the billions that the state is still planning to put toward water projects like the Lake Powell Pipeline and Bear River Development.

“We need Utah legislators to be fiscally conservative and not just give lip service to the value of water,” he said. “They need to hold wasteful water users accountable, and they need to stop shoveling out Utah taxpayers' money like it has no value.”

During a House committee hearing last month, Brian Steed, the executive director of the state’s Department of Natural Resources, said the bill is asking people to do a lot and some water districts are “uncomfortable” with the requirements. But he said it’s necessary for the future of the state.

“In hedging against a future that may be more dry and certainly more populous based on the conditions we see in this state, I think it's time that we become better stewards of the resources we currently have,” Steed said.

Lexi is KUER's Southwest Bureau reporter
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