When water "managers" in Utah, the second-driest state in the Union, become the biggest proponents of huge increases in water use, which they call "development," taxpayers should demand to know exactly what's going on.
In some of the worst use of "lies, damn lies, and statistics," the numbers representing water use can be manipulated to demonstrate just about whatever reality water officials want to portray.
When Washington County's water bosses want to show a dire need for a billion-dollar-plus pipeline to suck water from Lake Powell, they cite high water use figures; when they want to show that residents are already conserving, they use substantially lower numbers. And all the statistics are technically accurate, depending on which users you include.
State officials do the same. That's one reason an audit of the Utah Division of Water Resources requested by a coalition of eight conservation groups is an excellent idea at just the right time.
The division should be advocating that all Utahns make the most of the water they have before proposing huge projects like the Lake Powell pipeline and the Bear River dam bad ideas that would siphon off $20 billion in state tax revenues, upset fragile ecosystems and tap into water resources that can be put to better use as long as they last. They may not last more than a few decades.
But the division has spent millions more to promote the pipeline than it spends to evaluate other sources of water, including conservation. In fact, the division likes to cite "Strong's law," attributed to former division chief Dennis Strong, that whenever water is conserved, something dies. That is simply hogwash.
Conservation, especially in Utah, where water is mismanaged and consumed with no thought of tomorrow, should be considered the first and best source of water. Utah's enormous level of consumption per person per day stands in sharp contrast to usage in other desert areas. Simply compare Utah's usage of 295 gallons and Washington County's 328 gallons, with 223 in Las Vegas, 180 in Austin, 173 in Phoenix, or 150 in Albuquerque. Yet St. George water managers are after more, and they want all Utahns to pay for it.
Officials may dispute the comparisons, but if they do, there is more reason for an audit. We need real numbers that show how much water we use, how we use it and how we pay for it.
Is there really an impending shortage or are we just mismanaging the resource?
Part of the problem is how Utahns pay for water. Unlike most places, water development in Utah is subsidized by property taxes, so users pay a consumption rate far below the real cost. Tiered rate structures should raise rates substantially as usage increases. Secondary water is nearly free and use is not metered. Hookup fees are also far too low to reflect the water supply and the cost to deliver it.
Changes are in order, and an audit is a fine place to start.