Summit County Council steps in at 11th hour to broker tentative compromise in dispute between water providers
The Summit County Council stepped in at the 11th hour to help broker a compromise that could stave off further conflict between two of the largest water distribution companies operating in the Snyderville Basin.
The Mountain Regional Water District had proposed a rate increase that would double what it charges the Summit Water Distribution Company for surplus water next year, potentially pushing the total from $1 million to $2 million.
Summit Water officials have said they would likely be forced to raise rates to pay for it, and have questioned the basis for the increase.
Water companies in the county have feuded on and off for years, notably in the mid-2000s. The so-called water wars have included numerous lawsuits, some of which have not been resolved. A landmark 2013 agreement set up a framework for the largest providers to share water and delay a water importation project that has been estimated to cost $100 million.
On Tuesday, county councilors and staffers met with representatives from Mountain Regional and Summit Water and the group concluded that it should phase-in the rate increase, rather than do it all at once.
That meeting took place the day before the County Council was scheduled to vote on Mountain Regional’s budget, which it approved unanimously, including the compromised rate increase.
Both Summit Water and Mountain Regional are nonprofit entities.
The central issue is the “surplus” water Mountain Regional has agreed to provide Summit Water.
Andy Garland, Summit Water’s general manager, said that part of the 2013 agreement is that the parties have to predict annually how much water they are going to use over the next five years. Thinking development in Canyons Village would be further along, Garland said, Summit Water requested additional water five years ago — water he said it does not actually need.
Morrison explained that, when the request was made, Mountain Regional was acting as the provider of last resort in the Snyderville Basin; it was the only company capable of adding that surplus water to the system. If it had refused, it could have triggered a water importation project like a pipeline that has been estimated to cost $100 million.
“When Summit Water showed this demand — the additional 300 acre-feet — Mountain Regional saw that as, either we say yes, we believe our system can produce it and … we avoid water importation cost for the whole community, or we say no and the whole community sees pretty expensive water rates,” Morrison said.
Morrison said the previous surplus water rate wasn’t enough to cover costs and indicated it was artificially low due to miscalculations in previous years.
“It’s the last water we produce, it’s the toughest water we produce. It leads to increased stress on our system,” Morrison said in an interview earlier this month. “Mountain Regional owns all the operational risk for delivering water for anything that might go wrong.”
It appears the compromise rate will likely be a placeholder until an independent study determines a target rate. That’s an idea supported by both Mountain Regional and Summit Water.
The County Council acts as Mountain Regional’s governing body and is tasked with approving its budget. However, it does not set the district’s rates; that is done by Mountain Regional’s administrative control board.
That board voted Nov. 19 to increase the surplus water rate to $6.40 per 1,000 gallons, and will vote on Dec. 12 whether to accept the compromise rate of $5 per 1,000 gallons. If it does not, the county will be forced to amend Mountain Regional’s budget.
Morrison has said the board does not want Mountain Regional customers to subsidize Summit Water. He added it’s unclear which way the board will vote.
Council Chair Roger Armstrong, who was also in Tuesday’s meeting, said the council has to have both water companies’ interests in mind, as they combine to serve much of the west side of Summit County.
The threat of running out of water in the Snyderville Basin and being forced to trigger a costly water importation project has been lessened in recent years.
Park City Municipal recently committed to adding surplus water to the system in 2020, allowing Mountain Regional to provide less. That’s largely due to Park City’s $77 million 3Kings water treatment plant project that is planned to treat mine tunnel water.
Park City, which is also party to the 2013 agreement, will charge customers $8.85 per 1,000 gallons of surplus water. Mountain Regional’s current rate is $4.08 per 1,000 gallons, and it proposes increasing it to $6.40 per 1,000 gallons.
Mountain Regional charges its retail customers an average of $12.51 per thousand gallons, Morrison said.
Water officials have said the importation project could likely be avoided for many years.
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