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Utah officials called it the 'year of water,' but special interests still resist conservation
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Utah officials called it the 'year of water,' but special interests still resist conservation

Nation’s fastest-growing & second-driest state had banner year for water conservation as it plays catch-up to the rest of the West

  • The water conservation debate in Utah and around the West often focuses on residential use because taking water from farmers and appearing unfriendly to the agriculture industry remains a political third rail.
    Devin Stein/CC BY 2.0The water conservation debate in Utah and around the West often focuses on residential use because taking water from farmers and appearing unfriendly to the agriculture industry remains a political third rail.

This story was originally published by ProPublica.

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

Utah policymakers billed the 2022 legislative session as the “year of water.” Gov. Spencer Cox signed into law more than 15 measures related to water conservation, heralding “generational” progress as the West’s megadrought continues well into its third decade.

Those pieces of legislation allow farmers to earn money by sending their water downstream to shrinking lakes, require water meters for landscaping, appropriate $40 million to protect the Great Salt Lake and more. But perhaps more telling were proposals that lawmakers carved up or voted down.

Legislators in the country’s fastest-growing and second-driest state rejected a bill meant to address leaky pipes. New laws aimed at mandating low-flow plumbing both in state facilities and new homes had to be scaled back to win passage. And regulations on Utah’s lush green lawns remained largely off-limits, as interest groups stalled or rewrote bills targeting grass.

A ProPublica investigation last year found that Utah’s water policy was largely controlled by a group of water districts and allied special interest organizations and politicians who prioritized building new water projects over conservation.

ProPublica reviewed water-related proposals again following this year’s legislative session, including minutes from committee meetings, lawmaker testimony and internal communications obtained via public records requests. The analysis showed the Legislature remains hesitant to act quickly on water conservation or on a scale that fully reflects the region’s dire situation, in part due to the influence of a rotating cast of special interest groups.

With little new water to tap, Utah is running out of time to reduce the amount that residents use on a daily basis. The Bureau of Reclamation announced in mid-June that Colorado River Basin states might have to cut water use by as much as a quarter next year, compared with average consumption.

“Is it the year of water?” asked Zach Frankel, executive director of environmental advocacy group Utah Rivers Council. “The answer is, ‘Hell no.’”

The grass is always greener

The water conservation debate in Utah and around the West often focuses on residential use because taking water from farmers and appearing unfriendly to the agriculture industry remains a political third rail. In Utah, outdoor landscaping accounts for about two-thirds of residential water consumption, and a growing consensus around the region sees tearing out lawns as a key strategy to alleviate the strain on the overdrawn Colorado River.

At least five members of the Utah House of Representatives began the session intending to address the grass question. Two bills passed. One gave the Utah Division of Water Resources approval to spend up to $5 million annually on turf removal incentives, but the bill didn’t appropriate money to do it; the other prohibited municipalities from banning water-efficient landscaping or mandating grass on park strips, the narrow bands between the sidewalk and the street. Towns have grabbed headlines for threatening to fine residents who replaced lawns with water-saving alternatives.

Utah remains behind other Western states on removing grass.

California banned irrigating ornamental turf, such as landscaping on a highway median. In Colorado, lawmakers passed a bill to create a turf removal system. And Nevada, leading the fight against grass, passed a law in 2021 banning the roughly 40% of turf in the Las Vegas metro area that sees little public use. The Southern Nevada Water Authority, the area’s water wholesaler, has also increased the amount it pays property owners to remove turf from $0.40 per square foot in 1999 to $3 in 2018, and it spent nearly $269 million since 1999 to replace nearly 205 million square feet of grass with less water-intense landscaping.

The largest water district in Utah, the Central Utah Water Conservancy District, pays up to $1.25 per square foot at residential properties and $2 at commercial facilities and has ripped out about 233,000 square feet in recent years. The district’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2023 includes $1.6 million for turf removal. In southwestern Utah, the Washington County Water Conservancy District and the towns it serves are removing nearly 600,000 square feet of grass, and local municipalities are working on ordinances to ban or cap the amount of turf allowed on certain properties.

“We recognize in Utah in a lot of ways we’re behind what Colorado and some of our neighboring states have done, and we as a state are focused,” said Rep. Gay Lynn Bennion, a Democrat who worked on turf legislation this session.

But internal communications suggest Utah is stymied by politicking, with groups such as the Utah League of Cities and Towns, which lobbies on behalf of municipalities, fighting against aggressive policy.

Rep. Raymond Ward, a Republican, proposed a bill to prohibit municipalities from requiring grass lawns. In January, he told ProPublica his idea ran into early opposition from the league, “who I knew would be the chief opponent because it impinges on what they think is their birthright, which is zoning,” he said.

Ward tweaked his proposal to assure the league that the bill wouldn’t get in the way of municipalities’ beautification ordinances. The group toned down its opposition, Ward said, but lobbyists from homeowners associations continued to attack and the bill failed.

A similar turf law did pass — one endorsed by lobbyists from municipalities and water districts — that Ward described as a “watered down version” of his bill.

Sponsored by Republican Rep. Ryan Wilcox, that bill would’ve prohibited municipalities from requiring that grass cover more than 35% of a property’s irrigated area.

On the same day the House unanimously passed the bill, Justin Lee, the Utah League of Cities and Towns’ director of government relations and a registered lobbyist, emailed Wilcox: “With a few tweaks we think there is potential to get our members more excited about this bill.” Meanwhile, the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District’s general manager, assistant general manager and general counsel were drafting substitute language.

Wilcox met with Lee, the water district and several towns, and later that week he sent Lee a proposed bill substitute. “Please Review,” Wilcox wrote. Lee responded to the legislator, “This is exactly what we were looking for.” Wilcox introduced the substitute, and Lee showed up to support the bill, which had been changed to keep most decision-making on landscaping with local municipalities.

In an interview, Lee said that the league isn’t opposed to all grass-related legislation and that limiting irrigated turf could be considered at some point. The group’s main concern this year was preserving municipalities’ authority to write local rules, such as beautification ordinances, he said.

Bart Forsyth, Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District’s general manager, said he wanted to ensure Wilcox’s bill wouldn’t get in the way of cities that were already implementing water efficiency standards. His district got involved, Forsyth said, because other groups were opposed and “for the bill to pass, some changes would likely be needed.”

Wilcox declined to comment.

The Utah League of Cities and Towns has opposed turf bills for years. In 2016, then-Sen. Scott Jenkins, a Republican who was upset that a local ordinance compelled him to plant a lawn around his plumbing wholesale warehouse in Orem, filed a bill to curb such mandates. Jenkins told ProPublica that the league doomed the bill.

“Considering the fact that we’re hurting for water right now, especially in Utah and in the West, that’s just so dumb to do,” Jenkins said. “They ask us to not turn our faucets on or shut them off when we’re brushing our teeth, but they’re just flat out wasting water here.”

The league’s position statement on that year’s legislation noted that Jenkins did not first run the bill past a group consisting of the league and others representing towns, real estate and development interests. The bill died on the Senate floor.

“People are realizing we need to do things differently,” Lee said. “I think some of the pushback you saw in previous years is just not going to be as big going forward.”

Pulling punches in the legislature

With less pushback from special interests, Utah’s Legislature had, for it, a banner year on water. Still, bill sponsors were quick to defang water conservation legislation to get it passed.

Republican Rep. Robert Spendlove wrote HB121 to push water-saving measures at state-owned properties. His bill capped how much turf could be planted at new government facilities and called for state agencies to reduce their water use 25% by 2026. But a fiscal note claimed it would cost nearly $215 million to install efficient toilets and faucets, and Spendlove amended the bill to only apply to outdoor water savings.

Spendlove didn’t respond to requests for comment.

There was also a bipartisan push to update plumbing and building codes to require more efficient toilets, showerheads, bathroom sinks and urinals. In a presentation, Democratic Sen. Jani Iwamoto and Forsyth argued that more efficient plumbing fixtures could save 4.5 billion gallons annually by 2030. Much of the bill’s substance eventually passed, but sponsors still had to remove toilets from it in an act of appeasement to a fellow legislator.

“In the Legislature, sometimes it can stop for just one person. Their plumber may have said something,” Iwamoto said, declining to name which lawmaker flushed the key provision because of unsubstantiated fears of clogged toilets. Former President Donald Trump railed against low-flow plumbing fixtures when he was in office.

Even one of the signature bills in Utah’s year of water — requiring meters on secondary water systems that allow unlimited use of untreated water outdoors — was a target. Since 2018, lawmakers had tried and failed to mandate meters statewide, which data found reduced water use by an average of 23% simply because residents saw how much water they used. But emails showed that the Utah League of Cities and Towns and some individual municipalities continued fighting it this session.

The bill passed after legislators gave cities until 2030 to install meters, exempted small counties and provided money to cover as much as 70% of the cost. Not mentioned in various news releases heralding Utah’s commitment to conservation: That money came from the American Rescue Plan Act, the federal COVID-19 stimulus package signed by President Joe Biden.

Lee said a small number of municipalities were worried about secondary meters, and paying for them assuaged those concerns.

But even when state power brokers throw support behind water conservation, it’s sometimes not enough to get through the Legislature.

Rep. Melissa Ballard, a Republican, made a third attempt to require providers to study how much water their pipes and other infrastructure lose, often from leaks, and she presented HB115 with the support of both the Utah Department of Natural Resources and the state’s largest water districts. The bill failed anyway.

Asked what happened, Ballard told ProPublica in an email: “I wish I had an answer for you. Some legislators and water districts didn’t even look at the bill.” The Legislature sent HB115 back to the clerk of the House to be filed with bills that didn’t pass.

The general session ended in March. In April, with all of Utah in a drought, Cox declared a state of emergency. The governor acknowledged the executive order was largely for public awareness and let it lapse a month later.

Co-published with The Salt Lake Tribune.

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