David Orr and the Cost of Utah’s Water

The University of Utah recently brought leading ecological urbanist David Orr to campus. Some lucky students, including myself, had the chance to chat with him in a small group setting.

Two of Orr’s messages really stuck with me. First, “cities are going to pay for sustainability, one way or another.” Proactively, this means an investment in health, quality of life, and economic livelihood. Reactively, it means creating or recovering from a disaster, or both.

Second, Orr said, if you’re seeing unnecessary waste or sluggish progress toward sustainability, and you’re wondering why, “follow the money.”

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Both of Orr’s lessons are crucial in my research area – water – especially in Utah. To see how, let’s start by taking a step back and highlighting what we already know.

According to the US Department of Agriculture, two-thirds of counties in Colorado, three-quarters of counties in Idaho, and 100% of counties in California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah are experiencing or are contiguous with counties experiencing a drought emergency. Basically, the entire western US is a federally recognized disaster zone.

At the same time, we know that people in Utah use more water than almost any other place on Earth.

How could this possibly be?

Many answers are fairly obvious. Our long history of successful water engineering. Our relative water wealth compared to the regional cohort. Our huge lawns.

Much less obvious, but equally if not more important, are our quasi-public water wholesalers: conservancy districts, irrigation districts, canal companies, etc. In Utah, these water agencies are unelected but are able to collect property taxes, to the tune of half their total revenue streams. This results in artificially low water prices for retail sellers and end users. Thus, for instance, people in Salt Lake City face lower water costs than people in Phoenix, Tucson, Boise, Seattle, Denver, Reno, Las Vegas, or Los Angeles.

By insulating consumers from the true cost of water, Utah’s water wholesalers create a clear disincentive for conservation. But, these same agencies are also predicting major water supply deficits in the coming decades and are calling for over 30 billion dollars of state funding for massive new infrastructure, including the Lake Powell Pipeline and the Bear River Project.

The logic is schizophrenically bad. Low water prices on one hand, looming scarcity and expensive infrastructure on the other, and the same damn interest group pushing both agendas in the middle.

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So how does this all connect to David Orr?

First, follow the money. We have unelected institutions that not only collect property taxes but also take huge loans on the public dime. Water wholesalers are uniquely powerful, and for them the twisted logic makes perfect sense.

It’s no wonder, therefore, that Utahans are uniquely high water users.

It’s no wonder historians Gottlieb and Fitzsimmons describe water agencies as “hidden institutions… a complex of nominally public bodies whose policies and agendas affect the everyday life of… citizens in complex and hidden ways.”

Second, Utahans are going to pay for water sustainability, one way or another. Proactively, this could mean accurate water prices coupled with conservation and green infrastructure: xeric landscapes, rainwater harvesting, green roofs, wastewater recycling, etc. Reactively, it will mean destroying precious landscapes with huge grey infrastructure, saddling taxpayers with billions of dollars of debt, and relying on tenuous water supplies that could stop flowing at any time.

I say, let’s be proactive. Let’s save the precious landscapes rather than wrecking them, avoid the debt, and create cherished green places in our cities, rather than maintaining the grey status quo.

And, when someone confidently argues otherwise, let’s remember David Orr.

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