Paying for water

Proper fees would discourage waste
This is an archived article that was published on in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Folks in every state and community are right to be on the lookout for public officials who try to sneak through a tax increase by calling it a fee.

On the lookout, but not automatically opposed.

Charging fees to those who use a service, and charging more to those who use that service the most, can often be more efficient and more fair than the alternative. Especially if the alternative is paying for that service with a tax that disguises its actual cost or unfairly spreads the burden.

Thus the water and sewer fees that are being sketched out by the folks at the Utah Department of Environmental Quality are a small step — a very small step — in the right direction. If anything, the fact that the proposed fee structure would charge water users by the month, rather than by the volume of water consumed, shows that we still have a long way to go in Utah to price water at what it is actually worth.

The water and sewer fees — the later inevitably nicknamed a "toilet tax" — are still in the early talking stages. And the amounts being talked about are relatively small, less than $60 a year. But the DEQ folks are already hearing a blowback from individuals and water providers.

Of course, nobody wants to pay any more money than they have to, for anything. And, of course, when someone gets used to the cost of something being covered by federal funds or dissolved in their property tax bills, having those costs broken out into specific fees for service can be an unpleasant surprise.

But the fact is that we are already paying for water — its safe delivery and its proper disposal — through taxes. Taxes paid to the federal government, a lot of which comes back in the form of Environmental Protection Agency grants, and taxes paid to local governments.

And the other fact is that federal spending is being cut in many ways and places, supposedly with the hearty support of Utah voters and their elected representatives, so EPA grants are expected to become more and more scarce.

But the need to properly treat the water that flows into your sink and the water that flows down your drains will not go away. And, in drought-stricken Utah, every drop of water must be treated as the precious commodity that it is.

Under the status quo, people who use little water — whether out of a sense of environmental responsibility or just because they aren't that thirsty — subsidize the profligate consumption of their neighbors.

A proper fee structure, which is long overdue, would end that unfairness, even as it pays the freight for the government service that may be more important than any other.