Water, a Utah constitutional amendment and how it affects your home

SALT LAKE CITY — A constitutional amendment on November’s ballot may appear to be a sleeper issue, but proponents pushing its passage say a no vote could put millions — possibly billions — in property value at risk in Salt Lake County and across the state.

Does that have your attention?

In Utah, the second most arid state in the nation, it all boils down to water: Who has it as a permanent source attached to the property they own, or who has a home or business that unknowingly is receiving water through a contract subject to cancellation within as little as 30 days notice.

“I see this as a political nightmare. People don’t really care about politics, but when it comes to the value of someone’s home, people get really grumpy. It’s like kicking a beehive,” said David Fife, a real estate appraiser.

Fife, along with Salt Lake County’s chief deputy assessor Chris Stavros, are among those trying to raise awareness about the importance of approving the constitutional amendment this fall, known as Amendment D, that will rectify a potential problem affecting about 150,000 residents in Salt Lake County and hundreds more in an estimated 50 communities scattered across the state.

Multiple cities provide water to users outside their service boundaries under contracts that be canceled with little notice and for no reason.

This “surplus” water has been a tool used in development, but also could be brandished as leverage due to the tenuous nature of the contract.

“Imagine your home, your block or your city given a 30 day notice to go find water,” said Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan.

Coleman, Fife and Stavros were discussing the issue at a recent meeting of the Association of Community Councils Together, which is trying to stoke attention over the importance in changing the Utah Constitution.

HB31, sponsored by Coleman and passed in the 2019 Legislature, requires cities to create a designated water service area and for residents who live outside their boundaries, notice that the water supply cannot be terminated. It also gives those residents a voice in the adjustment of water rates, which proponents of the change said is critical as well.

But the new law is toothless without passage of the constitutional amendment.

“It is not a problem right now, but failure to pass this constitutional amendment and solve this problem will ultimately damage so many local governments and have huge implications for so many property owners throughout the state of Utah, not just in Salt Lake County,” Stavros said.

“Frankly it’s quite scary.”

Stavros, in fact, reached out to his boss — Salt Lake County Assessor Kevin Jacobs — to spread the word to other assessors throughout the state that might bump up against potential problems in their communities when it comes to surplus water contracts.

“From the assessor’s point of view and as chief deputy assessor and a public servant myself, I am very concerned about this issue as it potentially affects residents in an adverse way,” Stavros said.

He emphasized it is critical assessor offices have the right information on property valuations and are aware of the risks to those valuations posed by surface water contracts.

During legislative testimony on the constitutional amendment and on Coleman’s bill, an attorney for Salt Lake City steeped in water law knowledge said he did not believe any of the surplus water contracts had been terminated with that 30-day notice, but he also said there was nothing to legally preclude it from happening.

Nancy Carlson-Gotts, president of the Association of Community Councils, said she is one of the residents of Salt Lake County who receives her water through a surplus contract.

“I was one of those people who had no idea,” she said. “You buy a home, turn on the faucet and the water is there … I don’t know how many people in Millcreek know they are on surplus water and what it potentially means to them.”

Carlson-Gotts said she doesn’t believe there is any opposition to passage of the amendment — it is just a matter of getting the word out. Her association will be distributing information on the amendment in its next newsletter.

Coleman added that it is a complex issue she hopes people take the time to understand.

“It’s rather a sleepy policy. Unless this is affecting you, most voters won’t know what they are voting for.”

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