Water district hikes fees for excessive water use, asks cities to conduct audit of public facilities

ST. GEORGE — A day after Gov. Spencer Cox renewed his call for residents and businesses to save water and for municipalities to enforce watering restrictions in the face of the ongoing drought, the Washington County Water Conservancy District echoed the governor’s call while also announcing a price hike for excessive water use.

The entrance to the Washington County Water Conservancy District, St. George, Utah, Nov. 26, 2018 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

“As the hottest, driest and fastest-growing region in Utah, water conservation is critical for Washington County’s future,” a press release sent out Wednesday from the water district stated.

As part of the release, water district officials announced they would be implementing an “excess water-use surcharge” starting at $1 per 1,000 gallons on the county’s high water users.

Karry Rathje, the communications and government affairs manager for the district, told St. George News that those affected by this surcharge will depend on the various users’ meter size.

“It varies quite a bit,” she said, but added that it will apply to “approximately the top 20% tier of all water users, and for the average resident, that would be 36,000 gallons a month.”

Rathje said that places like schools and hospitals that have a larger meter will have a larger threshold.

The release also said the water district is asking cities to conduct an internal audit on all public facilities to reduce water use by an additional 10% and identify nonfunctional lawn areas that will be converted to water-efficient landscapes.

Finally the district is requesting cities pass and enforce ordinances to the following effect:

  • Limit/restrict grass in new commercial and residential developments.
  • Prohibit irrigating with treated water between the hours of 10 a.m. and 8 p.m.
  • Eliminate water features in new developments.
  • Require commercial car wash facilities to recycle water onsite.
  • Determine lawn limits and/or water budgets for golf courses.

“We have to take conservation seriously,” Zach Renstrom, the water district general manager, said in the press release “We have one local water resource that is almost tapped out and a population that is projected to more than double in the next 40 years.”

Washington County has reduced its per capita water use by more than 30% since 2000 – the highest percent reduction in Utah, according to the press release. In collaboration with its municipal partners, the district has also invested more than $70 million in recent conservation efforts.

Rathje said the revenue from the excess water-use surcharge will be used to offset capital project costs.

“And it will fund water conservation programs,” she said. “The whole goal of this surcharge is to incentivize people to use less water.”

According to state water managers, culinary – or drinking-quality – water use in Washington County breaks down to 59% for residential use, 11% for commercial use, 6% for institutional use and 1% for industrial use. Of that residential use, over 50% is applied to outdoor watering.

Stock image by Mori Kessler, St. George News

These numbers do not count for secondary – or irrigation-quality– water use that tends to be applied to golf courses, cemeteries and schools.

As for the implementation of the water district’s conservation goals and excessive-use surcharge, Renstrom said in a recent interview with St. George News they were recently approved by the district’s board of trustees and will likely be followed up by sterner measures moving forward.

“Our board will most likely be coming out with more aggressive steps in the next couple of months,” Renstrom said.

Concerning the policing and enforcement of water restrictions, the water district has no authority in this regard beyond charging more for excess water use.

“Those high-end users will start to see an additional line item on their water bill if they are using an excessive amount of water,” Renstrom said.

Enforcement of water restrictions, as the governor said Tuesday, is done on the local level by the municipalities.

An example of this is found in Syracuse, Utah, where residents aren’t allowed to water their lawns between the hours of 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Fox13Now reported that violators will get an initial warning. A second violation will lead to a $100 fine, a third will result in a $250 fine and a fourth violation will shut off the home’s secondary water for the year.

While local city officials have been hesitant to issue punitive measures for water use violations in the past and don’t wish to be the “water police,” as one city mayor has put, this may change with the increasing severity of the drought.

In this file photo, Zachary Renstrom, the general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, discusses the county’s water treatment process, St. George News, Utah, March 19, 2020 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

“Our cities want to respond to this, and they’re going to start taking actions too,” Renstrom said.

St. George Mayor Michelle Randal declined to comment Wednesday on what any additional water conservation measures and potential enforcement may look like until after city officials meet with the water district later this month to discuss the issue.

Rathje told St. George News that the meeting with the various municipalities hasn’t been scheduled yet, but when it takes place, the public will be welcome to attend.

With no guarantee of enough – if any – rainfall in the immediate future, Washington County is being buoyed by its reservoirs for the time being. This should get the county through the rest of the summer, but beyond that is another question if there isn’t enough rain or snowpack in the future to refill them. This plays into the water district’s call for county residents to save on their water use.

Sand Hollow Reservoir, Hurricane, Utah, June 28, 2016 | File photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

“We want to protect those reservoirs,” Renstrom said. “Let’s start making those smart decision now, and maybe we avoid those more painful steps in the future if we have another dry year.”

The water district currently offers more than two dozen conservation programs. District officials are also working with Maddaus Water Management, an international authority specializing in water demand analysis, water conservation and drought planning, to identify additional programs to implement in the 2021 water conservation plan. Additional programs under review include rebates for turf removal, water-efficient irrigation devices and water-smart appliances.

Maddaus audited the district’s current water conservation program and reported it was “on par with other notable programs in the western United States and exceeds those of other entities of a similar size and customer base.”

Some basic ways the water district officials say residents can reduce their water use include the following:

  • Skip an irrigation cycle – saves 1,000 gallons.
  • Take showers, which use approximately 17 gallons, instead of baths, which can use up to 35-50 gallons.
  • Turn off the water when brushing your teeth or shaving, which can save an estimated 4 gallons.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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