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Proposed bill could change how water is measured in Utah. Opponents call it a ‘gag order.’

Written by Mori Kessler

ST. GEORGE — For years, Utah – and Washington County in particular – has been accused of being a water waster when compared to other states. While Utah water managers have cried foul over those claims, the way Utah has traditionally counted water apparently hasn’t helped.

Utah Sen. Michael McKell speaks to a Senate Committee about SB 119 which would make how Utah measures water comparable to other states, Salt Lake City, Utah, Jan. 24, 2023 | Photo courtesy of the Utah Legislature, St. George News

Attempting to address this issue, the per capita consumptive use bill, officially designated SB 119 in the 2023 Utah Legislature, authored by Sen. Michael McKell, is now headed to the House for further debate after passing the Senate in a 22-1 vote (six senators were absent) on Monday.

While supporters say it will help bring Utah’s water use calculations more in line with how other Western states measure water use, the opposition argues the bill is misleading.

During a meeting of the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee held Jan. 24, McKell said the state needed to measure water in a way that accurately reflected the amount being used.

“Oftentimes we are criticized for waste and those measurements are just different in other states and other areas,” he said. “We want to be able to measure apples to apples and oranges to oranges.”

Attorney Fred Finilinson, who represents water districts attached to Prepare 60, was invited by McKell to give the committee a breakdown of how Utah measures its water compared to other states.

There are three ways per capita water use is measured, the attorney said.

One method looks at the total amount of water that’s diverted from its primary source for use. From there, the per capita use is determined by dividing the diverted water totals by the population served.

The second method measures the amount of water that is delivered to the end customer. In Utah, the majority of the drinking-quality water delivered to the end user is metered. Taking the amount of water delivered to the end users and dividing by population is another way per capita use is calculated.

In this file photo, a view of the Colorado River from Glen Canyon Dam, Page, Ariz., June 10, 2022 | Photo by David Dudley, St. George News

“On the Colorado River, they use the consumptive use standard,” Finilinson said.

The consumptive use standard takes the water that is delivered to a home and only counts what that home uses. And unused water delivered to a home is subtracted from the overall amount used when divided by the population served.

For example, the standard takes the amount of water used by a household and measures what amount was actually used following delivery. A home that used 10% will see the remaining 90% return downstream, Finilinson said. The unused 90% is subtracted from the overall amount that is divided by the population.

“A classic example of that is Las Vegas,” he said. “They only have 300,000 acre-feet of water, but they divert nearly 700,000 to 800,000 acre-feet. They then take a return credit for all the water that comes back through Las Vegas wastewater treatment — and the stormwater when they can count it when it goes back into the system — so that their consumptive use is measured on their 300,000 acre-feet.”

Utah either takes the amount of water diverted or delivered for its water per capita use calculations, which is fine when comparing data collected in Utah using the same methods, Finilinson said.

However, when compared to other Western states, “our numbers will be significantly higher, and we’re not looking at the same measuring statistics.”

According to the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, the average house in Las Vegas uses around 222 gallons of water daily. The average household in St. George (going by the state’s current mode of measurement) is reported to be around 304 gallons per day.

If passed, SB 119 will create an alternative consumptive use measuring standard for Utah to use when comparing per capita numbers with other states.

In this file photo, St. George City as seen from the Dixie Rock / Sugarloaf formation at Pioneer Park, St. George, Utah, July 2016 | File photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

The bill would also impact water districts in counties of the first and second class in Utah. County classes are determined by population. In Utah, a first-class county has a population of 1 million or more. A second-class county has a population of 1750,000 or more. At nearly 200,000 people, Washington County is listed as second class. And Washington County water managers say they support the bill.

“The (Washington County Water Conservancy District) supports the current draft of SB 119 Per Capita Consumptive Use,” Karry Rathje, a spokeswoman for the water district, wrote in an email to St. George News. “This bill will allow water districts to update its water use accounting methodology to be more consistent with the practices of water providers in other regions.”

While supporters of the bill say it creates a measure of uniformity in how water use is calculated, its opponents say the bill is “hiding water” and called it a “gag order.”

Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, said the bill would be fine if culinary, or drinking-quality water, was the only factor, but it is not.

The bill does not require the counting of secondary (irrigation-quality) water that is lost in transport, he said, adding that language in the bill also makes it illegal for other agencies to calculate water use.

Quail Creek Reservoir, Hurricane, Utah, Jan. 25, 2023 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

“This bill hides water and puts a gag order on other agencies,” Frankel told St. George News on Thursday evening. “The gist of this is that we’re unwilling to save water. It’s disinformation.”

Language in the bill Frankel specifically referred to are found on lines 126 to 130, which state:

“A state agency or a political subdivision of the state may not calculate, publish, or disseminate a: (i) statewide per capita consumptive use number; or (ii) per capita consumptive use number for a first class or second class county that is different from a number reported by a reporting district pursuant to this section.”

Frankel, who also attended the Jan 24 committee hearing, said McKell would not talk to him about the bill one-on-one when he wanted to address the secondary water and “gag order” language in the bill. Rather, he said McKell pointed him to the attorneys and water districts that helped craft the bill.

“This bill is everything that’s wrong with the Utah Legislature,” Frankel said. “It’s a really, really bad bill.”

St. George News attempted to contact McKell for comment but had not heard back by the time of publication.


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