SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's Division of Water Resources is in the midst of a study exploring how water is paid for in the state and whether that ought to change.

Right now, people get a monthly water bill but the bulk of water is actually paid for through property taxes. Environmental and taxpayer watchdog groups have pushed for that to change to more of a "user fee," arguing that people really should pay for what they use to force water conservation and help save the Great Salt Lake. Senate Revenue & Taxation Committee Chair Dan McCay, R-Riverton, ordered a study on the topic after a bill he tried to introduce faced significant pushback on Utah's Capitol Hill.

The study, due to be completed in October, is already yielding some findings. Candice Hasenyager, the director of Utah's Division of Water Resources, updated a conference of the Utah Water Users Association in St. George last week on the study's progress. For example, Utah is not alone among western states when it comes to relying on property taxes to fund infrastructure needs.

"We're learning some interesting things and I think one of the really important things that’s kind of the next step is the study to determine well, if not property taxes, then what?" she said in an interview with FOX 13 News. "What is the model that we're going to use? And everywhere within Utah is so different so it may not be a one-size-fits-all solution."

The idea of reworking the property tax is not popular with local water districts, who argue the tax is necessary to keep funding critical infrastructure projects that keep the pipes going and the taps working.

"I think it would be extremely detrimental to the citizens because first of all, they will actually end up paying more money," said Zach Renstrom, the general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District. "When we go in and get bonding and certain financing things, we get a lower rate on our bonding because we have a diverse portfolio collection of our money. Also with all this water conservation going on, we use property tax to help with that."

Renstrom said local water districts are getting more aggressive about charging people for what they use. The Washington County Water Conservancy District, he said, now charges an excess water use fee of $10 per 1,000 gallons that exceeds seasonal thresholds (8,000 gallons in the winter, 15,000 gallons in the spring and fall and 20,000 gallons in the summer) on top of someone's municipal water rates.

"If we have an individual that is abusing the system they get a very, very healthy, large water bill. If you’re that user that’s using very minimal amount of water, on a fixed income, our water rates are lower for them," Renstrom said.

Kyle Roerink, the executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, argued that Utah could still stand to charge even more. Roerink said his organization favors tiered systems to charge people for what they use.

"I think the fairest thing to do is to continue focusing on that tiered and targeted mechanism to really hit the people who are really using the most. I think Utah can absolutely be doing more in all of their counties," he said Monday.

In a statement to FOX 13 News, Sen. McCay suggested the issue may come back next legislative session.

"The water issue is currently being studied and I’m hopeful we will have solutions that better align water usage and rates," he said.

Fox 13 Reporter
Ben Winslow is FOX 13's reporter on Capitol Hill covering a wide variety of topics including politics, polygamy, vice and courts. He has been in the news business in Utah for more than 20 years now, working in radio, newspaper, television and digital news. Winslow has received numerous honors for his reporting, including a national Edward R. Murrow award; the Religion Newswriters Association Local TV News Report of the Year; the Utah Broadcaster's Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. Readers of Salt Lake City Weekly and Q Salt Lake have named him their "Best TV news reporter" for many years now. He co-hosts "Utah Booze News: An Alcohol Policy Podcast," covering the state's often confusing and quirky liquor laws. Winslow is also known for his very active Twitter account keeping Utahns up-to-date on important news.

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