SALT LAKE CITY — First came the COVID-19 pandemic, then a 5.7 magnitude earthquake. Utah may have so far “avoided the the locusts,” Gov. Spencer Cox said Thursday, but not drought.
About half the state, Cox said during his monthly PBS Utah news conference Thursday, is “in the most extreme category of drought.”
Cox issued a state of emergency due to drought conditions on Wednesday with the entire state categorized in moderate drought, and about 90% of the state experiencing “extreme drought.”
“That’s why we’re so concerned,” Cox said. “We continue to pray and encourage people of faith to continue to do that, that we will have more storms. There are some in the forecast that we’re grateful for, but we are going to need Utahns to be especially careful this year.”
Asked about water restrictions, Cox said “we will watch that very closely,” but that will depend on local water districts. He also hinted restrictions might come earlier this year as compared to past years.
“I anticipate, depending on the locale, depending on which reservoir storage you’re under, that we will see restrictions fairly early this year,” Cox said.
Utah is among several Western states in extreme drought, including parts of California, Oregon, Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information.
Mar 16: Extreme drought persists in parts of California, Oregon, Nevada, and the Four Corners states. Exceptional drought still covers much of Nevada into California, as well as Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona. https://t.co/hs7rCpQMsY #DroughtMonitor #CAwx #AZwx #NVwx #NMwx #UTwx pic.twitter.com/otsFP0r7O2— NOAA NCEI Climate (@NOAANCEIclimate) March 18, 2021
Cox urged people to conserve water headed into the spring and summer months “knowing that we are starting at a deficit.” He also reminded Utahns that they live in a state that is among the driest in the nation.
Though a series of winter storms have helped, “unfortunately we still have a long ways to go,” Cox said, with the state currently at only about 70% of normal snowpack levels. For snowpack to reach average levels, Utah’s mountains would need to collect the remaining 30% of snow before it starts to melt significantly, which usually happens the first week in April. There is around a 10% chance of this occurring, state officials estimate.
“We had one of the driest falls in recorded history here in the state,” Cox said. “The soil content, the water content of our soil is lower than we’ve seen in a long, long time. And that’s impactful because when the runoff does happen, it will soak into the soil instead of going into our reservoirs.”
Utah’s current soil moisture is at the lowest levels since monitoring began in 2006. The Drought Review and Reporting Committee on Monday recommended the governor issue a drought declaration, which activates the Drought Response Committee.
Cox’s emergency declaration allows drought-affected communities, agricultural producers and others to officially begin the process to gain access to potential state or federal emergency resources.
The last time conditions warranted a drought declaration was when former Gov. Gary Herbert issued an executive order in October 2018. At that time, 99% of the state was in a moderate drought, with over 76% of Utah experiencing at least severe drought conditions.
Meanwhile, state officials and southern Utah leaders continue to move forward with yearslong discussions over plans to build a controversial 141-mile pipeline from Lake Powell to Washington County, estimated to cost between $1.1 billion and $1.9 billion, according to the Utah Division of Water Resources. After six years of construction, officials estimate water could be in the pipeline by 2030.
“We’ve been very supportive of everything that’s happening there,” Cox said in response to a question about the pipeline Thursday.
“There are a lot of hurdles that obviously have to have to be jumped through for this, but we’re closer than we’ve ever been and moving this forward,” Cox said.
The Utah Legislature passed a bill, which he signed this week, to create the Colorado River Authority, funded to the tune of $9 million in one-time money and $600,000 of ongoing money. The new authority was created to “protect” Utah’s interest in the Colorado River, which feeds Lake Powell.
Cox also said state officials will work with President Joe Biden’s administration “as we go through the permitting process.”
“We’re close and hope to have those things moving forward this year so we can actually get started on the project,” Cox said.
The governor said he’s “very grateful for our predecessors, our ancestors” who settled in Utah and developed the reservoirs “that have made it possible for all of us to live and thrive.
“I believe we owe that to the coming generation to be just as responsible as they work in making those hard choices and in making those investments,” Cox said. “And so I will continue to support projects like that, that we know are absolutely necessary.”
At the same time, Cox said Utahns must focus on conservation in a “very big way. We have to do better.”
He pointed to a bill passed by the Utah Legislature this year to require plans for metering of secondary water.
“That’s a really big deal and will help us in that the water conservation part of water security over the next 50 years,” Cox said.
Cox calls Antiquities Act ‘un-American,’ ‘unconstitutional’
Aside from Utah’s drought, Cox covered a wide range of issues during his monthly press conference Thursday, from announcing Utah’s COVID-19 vaccinations will be open to all Utahns above the age of 16 starting Wednesday, to other topics including Bears Ears.
Asked about newly confirmed Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s plans to visit Utah next month and meet with state, local and tribal leaders and whether the Lake Powell Pipeline will be part of those discussions, Cox said that visit will be “very specific” to discussion around two controversial national monuments in Utah.
The Biden administration has extended the 60-day timeline for a review of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, the boundaries of which have become a political football on the federal level. Biden issued an executive order calling for a review of the monuments in January after former President Donald Trump drastically reduced their sizes during his first year in office.
“I will say that I think the the nature of these discussions is far different than it was five years ago. I think that it’s been very respectful,” Cox said. “There’s been an interest in really finding a permanent solution. I think the one thing that we’re all wary of, regardless of what side you’re on with this, is this pingponging back and forth, depending on the president.”
Cox said that’s “one of the things I hate about the Antiquities Act,” a 1906 law allowing presidents to designate national monuments to protect natural, cultural or scientific features.
“It’s the most un-American of laws,” he said, adding that the Antiquities Act allows “usurping” of legislative power “in droves.”
“I happen to think it’s unconstitutional as it’s been used over the past several years. Now, we don’t have a Supreme Court that has decided that yet,” Cox said, but he argued the original intent of the act was to allow designations of smaller areas, not sweeping swaths of land sometimes bigger than some states “at the stroke of a pen.”
Cox also noted the Antiquities Act does not give a president authority to provide resources along with those designations. He compared the consequences of that to what happened when a strange monolith appeared in a remote area of Utah and attracted thousands of Utahns to a once tranquil area.
“They tore it up. They ruined the landscape. It was pretty awful,” Cox said. “Similar things happen in the Bears Ears area. With that, that monument that was declared, but no additional resources were given there. And what happened is people came from all over the world. They got lost, the search and rescue teams had to go and help them out.”
Cox said Utah officials want more resources for Bears Ears so they can “preserve it.” He argued “more antiquities were damaged with that designation” because there was no law enforcement, no visitors center to go along with the designation.
“So I do think that there is an opportunity for us to do something in legislation that puts an appropriate size on the boundary, stops it from pingponging back and forth every four to eight years, depending on who’s elected,” Cox said. “We really could do something special that protects the antiquities, the heritage of that place, and removes the just toxic atmosphere and debate around this.”
However, Cox warned he has “no idea what’s going to happen.”
“Obviously, if the president wants to, he can just, with the stroke of a pen, he can do that. It doesn’t need the Legislature but I think that that would be a mistake.”
Cox still weighing social media, porn filter bills
“That’s also on our list to talk about. We’ve had a lot of pushback on that bill,” Coxs said. “I think we all have concerns with social media right now.”
Cox said in his conversations with legislative leaders, “they’re all concerned,” but their concerns don’t center around how the bill has been “portrayed.”
“This isn’t, ‘We’re worried that Donald Trump was kicked off of Twitter’ bill,” Cox said. “It’s more we’re worried about the way that social media is. It is the toxicity that’s happening around social media, and how we moderate that in positive ways, as opposed to just algorithms, and making sure ... that people have the ability to to share their thoughts, even if they are unpopular in a way that is consistent with the First Amendment.”
Cox also noted social media companies “are private companies” and therefore they are “not controlled by the First Amendment. And so that’s part of the conversation that’s happening out there.”
“There’s some arguments over whether or not the bill is is constitutional,” Cox said. “And so I have concerns with the bill and I have concerns with social media. And we’re going to have those conversations about how to solve this the right way.”
Cox also hasn’t yet decided whether to sign HB72, a bill to require manufacturers of cellphones and tablets to have porn filtering software installed and switched on for all sales to Utah customers.
Cox said his team is set to review it next week. He noted, however that there have been some misconceptions around the bill, and that it won’t take effect until several other states pass similar legislation.
“And I don’t know if that’s likely to happen or not,” he said.
But Cox added it’s “very difficult” for parents, especially those with iPhones, to manually implement porn filters on their own.
“And so I think we can do better. And I do think that pornography is a problem, especially with younger and younger people and what it does to their brains when they don’t have a real ability to understand and to make those choices,” Cox said. “So really, we want to empower parents. I’ll take a hard look at the bill and see what it does. If nothing else, it sends an important message, I think, to people that we need to do better there, and then we’ll see what other states do.”
Cox signs 130 bills
The governor late Wednesday evening signed 130 more bills, in addition to the 172 he signed Tuesday.
Among those bills is HB86, the third bill Cox has signed to finalize a $100 million tax cut package for certain Utahns. HB86 would use about $18.3 million to eliminate income tax on some Social Security income, targeting Utah senior citizens living on fixed incomes.
Cox also signed HB347, a bill to create a central leader on homelessness and make other major changes after a Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute study late last year identified several issues with the state’s homeless services system. The bill creates a governor-appointed “state homeless coordinator” position. That person will lead a new Office of Homeless Services within the Department of Workforce Services and advise the governor about homelessness issues.
Cox also signed SB147, a bill written in cooperation with Utah egg-producers to mandate a cage-free environment for hens by 2025.
The governor also signed several more police reform bills, including:
- SB13, which seeks to ensure a police officer can’t skirt an internal investigation simply by jumping to a new police department.
- SB106, a bill seeking more uniform use-of-force standards to be established across the state.
- SB163, a bill inspired by the killing of University of Utah student Lauren McCluskey to require campus law enforcement to share a report of a crime that occurs outside campus law enforcement’s jurisdiction with the local law enforcement agency that has jurisdiction.
- SB196, which provides immunity for law enforcement agencies to disclose information to other law enforcement agencies regarding police officers, particularly in cases when other agencies consider hiring a police officer.