David Rodeback's Blog

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Wednesday, November 1, 2006
A Primer on the American Fork Water Bond, Part I

Here we look at the situation, the range of possible approaches, and the reasons why the City Council has preferred a citywide pressurized irrigation system.

If you're a voter in American Fork, there's a lot you need to know before voting on the proposed pressurized irrigation bond issue November 7. Much of it simply cannot be expressed clearly and accurately in soundbites. On the other hand, to do full justice to the subject would probably require a 100-page book, which I don't want to write and you don't want to read.

This series of much shorter articles will try to give a reasonably detailed overview of the subject -- a primer, if you will. Following Thomas Sowell's lead (in those great books on economics), I will attempt to explain the essentials using as few numbers as possible. If you're interested in detailed numbers, you can start where I started, with that "Community Fact Sheet" the City mailed, then posted on its Web site. For further information, call the Mayor or a member of the City Council.


You've probably heard that we've run out of water, or that we will by 2011, or something like that. The reality is not that simple. It's not that we have a finite supply and are about to reach the utter end of it, after which there simply won't be any more water ever again for American Fork. After all, the stuff falls out of the sky and runs down out of the mountains every year.

The State Engineer says that American Fork's population (residences, businesses, etc.) requires a water system which can deliver 14,926 gallons per minute, assuming normal usage with reasonable conservation. Next year, because of growth, the State Engineer says that number will be 15,672 gallons per meeting. (See the aforementioned Community Fact Sheet.)

Right now, the city's water system can deliver 14,700 gallons per minute, so there is a small but increasing shortfall. At the moment, it's not enough to notice, really, but if there were another drought -- which there will be -- there might have to be some rationing.


Stasis. Stop growing.

Since growth is causing the shortfall, in theory American Fork could slap a moratorium on growth. Some people would like that, but it will not happen. Here are some of the reasons:

  • State law allows for a six-month moratorium on growth, no longer, and then only for the purpose of creating needed regulations.
  • It's a nostalgic attempt to preserve something which no longer exists. I understand the appeal of a small, sleepy Mormon town where everyone knows everyone else, all lots are at least half an acre, and most folks have not only 6.5 children but also 2.2 horses and a few chickens. But we need to face facts. Such places still exist, and American Fork may have been one of them 40 years ago, but it isn't any more, and it never will be again. Besides, anyone who doesn't believe that Utah Valley will be wall-to-wall people within a few decades isn't paying attention. Look for the population of American Fork to double before the city reaches "build-out" (where all land is developed).
  • Third, a lot of undeveloped land -- we like to call it green space, no matter what color it is in August or February -- actually is a financial investment for a lot of hard-working, ordinary people. If we stop allowing people to sell their land to people who want to build things on it, and we severely devalue a lot of folks' retirement investments. That may actually be immoral; it is at least politically untenable.

Dither. Make no decision. Leave it for the next batch of leaders.

Been there, done that. This has been the policy of the last two administrations, in practice if not in principle. Maybe we could spend less money, drill a new well, lay a little extra pipe, and get by for a few more years -- apply a band-aid, as Councilman Jimmy Cates puts it . . . Here are some of the problems:

  • Construction costs are growing far in excess of the inflation rate. Had the City acted a dozen years ago, the price tag would have been about one-fifth what it will be if the City acts now. Dithering does not make financial sense in this case.
  • Despite the costs of actually addressing the growing problem in a meaningful way, I think enough people understand the problem now that dithering doesn't make political sense, either.
  • Dithering is not the way responsible adults tend to approach real problems. (Dithering is not the same as patience.)

Note that conservation is important, but by itself insufficient -- and the State Engineer's numbers already assume reasonable conservation.


To understand the two possible and practical solutions to the problem, you must appreciate that not all water is created equal. For our purposes there are two kinds, culinary water and irrigation water:

  • Culinary water is fit for drinking and other household uses. It also works well enough for watering your lawn and garden -- and we know this because that's what about 95 percent of the households in American Fork use for such purposes. In American Fork, culinary water is pumped out of the ground. For what it's worth, our culinary water is the best municipal water I've tasted anywhere in years, from Maine to California.
  • Irrigation water comes from runoff and springs and is currently delivered by rivers, canals, and ditches. Only about five percent of American Fork households use it for irrigating lawns and gardens; the rest of the city uses culinary water. Unless treated, irrigation water is not fit for drinking or other culinary use.

The current problem is that American Fork does not have enough culinary water, and its current water system cannot deliver enough culinary water, to allow everyone to drink, cook, bathe, and water their lawns. That's true now, and the situation is steadily worsening. On the other hand, American Fork has a lot more irrigation water than it currently uses. The other essential fact here is that --  assuming you don't mind the taste too much, and assuming the City can leap some fairly manageable legal, political, and engineering hurdles -- irrigation water can be converted to culinary water, through expensive treatment at an expensive treatment plant.

With all that in mind, consider that two-thirds of the water used in Utah is used outdoors, and the City reports American Fork's usage is consistent with that. Now realize what this means: American Fork has enough culinary water to supply a population approximately three times larger than its present size, as long as culinary water is not used for irrigation. That gets us to build-out and well into build-up. (When there's no place to go horizontally, cities start to grow vertically.)

So there are two possibilities which, besides being better than stasis and dithering, actually are reasonable approaches to the problem:

  • Build a treatment plant and use it to expand the supply of culinary water by treating irrigation water, and expand the delivery system (pumps, pipes, etc.) so that it can deliver more water.
  • Build a pressurized secondary irrigation system to deliver irrigation water to much or all of the city, so people can stop watering their lawns with culinary water, so there will be enough of the latter to sustain growth to build-out.

Both of these solutions are in use elsewhere in Utah, and both are adequate. Surrounding communities in Utah County, however, have all favored a pressurized system.

There are a lot of pros and cons. For example, great-tasting water (the current system) is not essential to life; water is, even if it doesn't taste great (treatment plant). Putting in a pressurized system will probably tear up the streets more than expanding the current system and building a treatment plant, despite cool new techology which reduces the digging. Some labor and expense will be required of homeowners to hook up to a pressurized system  And so on.

Here's the big reason the City Council chose a pressurized secondary irrigation system: In the long run, it costs a lot less than a treatment plant. In fact, more recent numbers than the City used in its decision-making process suggest that the cost difference is even greater than it originally appeared. Treatment plants in the region are seeing treatment costs grow more quickly than previously reported; EPA regulations may be to blame.

Once we settle on a pressurized secondary irrigation system, we must address the question of whether it is to be citywide or serve only part of the city. A city-wide system will cost more now, but only about 20 percent more. Furthermore, a partial system would likely have to be extended at great expense within 20 to 30 years. For these and other reasons, none of which seems to have been a reckless addiction to spending tax money, the Council considered and rejected a partial system in favor of a citywide system.

(In fact, the "citywide" system will not be quite citywide. For example, the Meadows development on the west side of the city uses relatively little water for irrigation, so the secondary system will not be extended there. Businesses there will water their landscaping, if they have any, more expensively, with culinary water.)

My next water-related article will discuss the aspect of this which hits most American Fork residents most nearly where they live: the monthly water bill. Here's a quick preview: No matter what the City does about the water problem, that water bill is going up. Then Part III looks at political considerations, including the actual ballot item.

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