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

Here I explain how American Fork residents' water bills will be increasingly considerably, whether or not the voters approve the bond issue to build a pressurized irrigation system.

Part I discussed American Fork City's water situation, outlined possible approaches, and briefly noted why the City Council chose a citywide pressurized irrigation system. This article looks briefly at the future of that all-important document, the monthly water bill, and warns against a tempting fallacy connected with it. Part III considers the situation from various political angles, and offers a few good and bad reasons to vote against the proposed bond issue (which is not how I intend to vote).

Before we start, please note that only part of the bill you get every month from the City is for water. That's the part we're talking about. The rest is for sewer, garbage, etc. We still have to pay it, but it's irrelevant to this discussion.

A False Choice

There's a temptation to see a false choice here, between keeping the water rates we have now and accepting much higher rates to fund the proposed secondary system. (Had things gone different in the City Council, we'd be saying the same of a proposed treatment plant and higher-capacity culinary system.) It is important to understand that this is a false choice, because keeping our current water rates is not an option. Remember, we can make growth difficult and slow it some, but not stop it without violating state law.

Obviously, water rates will dramatically increase if they are to pay for a secondary pressurized irrigation system in the amount of  $46,950,000. The combined cost of primary and secondary water in the monthly bill for a quarter-acre lot is estimated at about $36, up about 75 percent from the current amount, $21. The culinary portion of the bill will include a minimum fee plus additional charges for additional usage; these rates are crafted to encourage conservation and to encourage residents to use secondary water for irrigation. The secondary portion of the bill will be based on lot size; a major consideration is covering costs without penalizing farmers. (This lot-size-based secondary rate disturbed some in the town meeting I attended, who reasonably argued that some people water more of their half-acre -- or lot of another size -- than others, some overwater, and so forth. But the cost of a more customized fee schedule would be prohibitive, as would metering the secondary water with current technology.)

The Real Choice: Up (with a Solution) or Up (without a Solution)

All of that is predictable. Less obvious is the fact that if we dither, avoiding a long-term solution for more years, our water bills will still go up while we procrastinate.

First, note that the City will start paying for some irrigation water from the Central Utah Project, whether that water is used in the city or not. No matter what else is happens, this will increase a resident's monthly water bill by $5.00 per month, beginning in 2007.

Second, as the city grows, the water shortfall will worsen. If no other solution is implemented, this growth will necessitate rationing. Schemes like alternate-day watering schedules, where half the city irrigates on odd days and the other half on even days, can help to reduce overwatering and encourage conservation, but will not reduce the real need for water overall, and so will not be an adequate long-term approach. When it becomes inadequate, the next step will be to reduce demand by increasing the price -- more than a little to begin with, and still more as growth continues to exacerbate the situation. Soon enough, we'll end up having paid as much for mere bandaids (Councilman Jimmie Cates' term) as we would have paid for a real solution -- but we won't have a real solution to show for it. Sadly, if we decide to pay for a real solution at that point, the price will be even higher than it is now.

And so I begin where I started. We are choosing between possible futures, and keeping things the same as they are now is not one of our options. Time is linear and unidirectional, and my water bill is going up, no matter how my fellow American Forkers and I vote next week. We may as well get an actual solution in the bargain, rather than simply procrastinating it at great additional expense.

No doubt some others feel otherwise, but at this point I am satisfied that in selecting a city-wide pressurized irrigation system the City Council has chosen the most sensible long-term approach to water. I am likewise satisfied that the most economical means of funding it is by the proposed general obligation bond. In case you are still wondering, I'll be voting for the bond.

I believe the City, with the help of some experts, has done its homework as well as voters might reasonably expect. Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that the current set of City leaders is able, willing, and eager to learn from the experiences of other municipalities. They seem to be taking seriously the insights and concerns of American Fork residents who have lived with pressurized irrigation elsewhere. So am I confident that most details, ranging from water rates to water rights to filtration, will be handled intelligently and economically, to the extent that these adverbs are in any government's repertoire.

Finally, a note about where this series of articles will go from here. I had thought I might devote the next article to questions and answers, but a lot of that information has been available from the City itself, in documents mailed to the residents and at a pair of town meetings. I have no reason to believe that the City's answers and explanations are incorrect or offered in bad faith. So I do not plan to try to ask and answer every good question here.

Whether it the bond issue will pass Tuesday is largely a political question, and a very interesting one at that. Stay tuned for the third article.

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