Governor's News Conference

June 20, 2021

"As of June 1st, statewide reservoir levels are 15% lower than last year, which were already lower than the year before with 21 out of 42 of our largest reservoirs below 55%." Goveror Cox

NARRATOR: PBS Utah presents The Governor's Monthly News Conference an exchange between Utah reporters, and Governor Spencer Cox.

GOVERNOR COX: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. It's great to be with you again, it’s great to see your faces I think for the first time. I was a little stunned to see you all. You've all aged very well over the past 18 months. We're glad to see you.

Just a couple of messages today around the drought and then our COVID response. Just a reminder that we are still living in a desert and we are in extreme drought or exceptional drought in virtually every part of the state. I saw yesterday that I think Alta has received zero rain in June and in 2012, they received a trace of rain to this point in June. And those of you that will remember 2012 we had some of our worst wildfires ever. And that's what we're talking about this year. With 100% of the state in drought, 90% categorized as extreme drought and 70 to 80% is exceptional drought which is the highest drought level possible. Utah drought conditions are worse than most of us have ever seen in our lifetime. And 2020 was the driest year on record and one of the hottest. And so, this has led to record dry soils.

Our snow pack was also very limited, topping out at 81% statewide, much lower in some areas, a little higher than others and peaking 10 days early. So together with the record dry soils and what little runoff we have received, streams statewide are flowing at less than 50% of normal for this time of year. A dry April was followed by a dry May with less than one half inch of precipitation accumulation in valley locations. And as I just mentioned, June being even drier than that. All of this means less water is getting into our reservoirs. As of June 1st, statewide reservoir levels are 15% lower than last year, which were already lower than the year before with 21 out of 42 of our largest reservoirs below 55%. Conditions do vary across the state.

Some are reservoirs are doing okay but others will definitely run dry this season. Now we don't know how long this drought is going to last. That is out of our control but what is in our control, is how we respond and what we do as individuals, families, businesses and institutions to conserve water anywhere we can.

Our best hope for now is for all of us to start acting like we live in a drought filled desert. Deserts don't have a lot of green grass. And so, we're encouraging people not to water more than twice a week. And to let your lawn go yellow. Lawns are very resilient and will rebound next year. So, reserving landscape watering for trees, shrubs and flower beds set your lawnmower to the highest setting and consider replacing grass in your parking strip with xeriscaping.

You can find more ways to be water-wise at slowtheflow.org. We are taking the same actions and precautions at the state level. As we've mentioned already, I've issued three emergency declarations ordering state facilities to limiting water to twice per week, turning off sprinklers on windy days, fixing leaks. We really want to lead by example. We've also asked our local governments and other business communities to join us in these conservation efforts.

Now I do want to touch on the COVID situation as well. Nationally, COVID cases are no longer falling. They are plateauing right now. This doesn't mean that we're seeing a surge or a spike, but we need to continue planning to get as many people vaccinated as possible. That is still our watch word. We just need people to get vaccinated.

Here's what cases are doing in Utah as an update. We've seen a small increase and a plateau now. We had seen cases get down into the low two 200s at one point we're now back up to about 270 to 280 cases our rolling seven-day average has remained pretty steady over the past week. It looks like our rolling 70 average today is it 280 but the good news is that as always vaccines work to protect us, to protect you and protect all of us from variants that we're seeing. Just a few numbers, I'll share that breakthrough numbers with you right now. Of the 1013 total breakthrough cases that we've had 1013, we've had 108 breakthrough hospitalizations and just three breakthrough deaths. 

Since March 23rd, when vaccines opened up to everyone 16 plus there have been 28,233 total COVID cases. So, if you're doing the math there that means that 90, basically 97% of them 96.8% of them have been unvaccinated people. Also, there have been 1,625 hospitalizations which means that 95.2% of them were unvaccinated. And there have been 113 deaths, which means that 98.2% of those deaths have been unvaccinated. Short story vaccines work. They work at the rates we were told they were going to work. They're incredibly successful and we need people to get vaccinated.

Now, I think it's interesting to note we've talked before in these press conferences, what is happening in other parts of the world as well? I think it's instructive to look at Great Britain who has done a fairly good job of getting people vaccinated. They're seeing cases rise mostly due to the Delta variant which scientists have found is a more contagious variant. That is easily spread, tends to last a little longer and it can be a little more damaging to people. The great news is that the vaccines work against the Delta variant, they work just as well against the Delta variant as the other variants. And so, we really can protect people, but as we see cases plateau and raise a little bit here in Utah, the Delta variant is here. We believe that the Delta variant is growing and we'll have some updated numbers that should be coming out I think tomorrow that will show an increase in the Delta variant here in the State of Utah. But again, not amongst vaccinated people. 

So, the answer as always is to get vaccinated. There are people younger than age 50 in our hospitals right now on oxygen. These are people with no prior health conditions and they can't breathe well enough on their own and are requiring hospitalization because they were not vaccinated. It's very sad. Multiple times during the past two weeks, I've had conversations with families whose loved ones have died or who are in the hospital in dire circumstances right now, because they refuse to get vaccinated. Completely preventable, they didn't have to die. They don't have to be in the hospital, but they're dead now and they're in the hospital now because they refuse to get vaccinated. 

So please, please, please get vaccinated. Please encourage your family members to get vaccinated. Here's what we're seeing from Ashley Regional Medical Center in the Uintah Basin. This is a quote from Greg Gardiner the Chief Clinical Officer at the medical center there, he said, "We are seeing an uptick in COVID-19 patients being admitted to the hospital. All of the current individuals that have tested positive did not receive the vaccine. We have a goal of vaccinating 70% of all adults with at least one dose by July 4th." Now it's looking like we're not going to get there unless we have a big surge of vaccinations over the next couple of weeks. And we're hoping that will happen, we're pulling out all the stops to make that happen. 

The good news is we're at 64.3% of adults who have been vaccinated in the State of Utah. So, we're close. We're within shouting distance of 70%. If you're wondering, we are right at the national average. So, we're at 64.3 of all adults. The national average is 65%. So, we're right there. So, the good news is we're not doing worse than the nation. The bad news is we're not doing better than the national average. And we would certainly like to be doing better. And so, we need all of your help. We sent a letter out to, I believe 10,000 businesses this past week, encouraging businesses to help us in this. Encouraging their employees to get vaccinated, helping make vaccinations easy for them by giving them time off. Even their willingness to incentivize their employees to get vaccines, to host mobile vaccine clinics. And we think that that will certainly help if we can do that and get more people vaccinated.

With that, I want to thank our media partners for helping to push vaccines. We appreciate, I know several of you have helped ABC 4 held a vaccine clinic and Telemundo also held a town hall to inform residents of opportunity. So, we appreciate everything that you're doing to continue to get that message out there of the importance of vaccines. And with that, I'm happy to take questions.

TAYLOR STEVENS, SALT LAKE TRIBUNE: Governor scientists agree that climate change is leading to higher temperatures and stronger wildfires in the west. And I want to talk big picture here, given these realities what more should the state and businesses be doing to address human caused climate change?

GOVERNOR COX: There are lots of things that we should be doing to continue to address drought, climate change, our air quality, all of those different things. The good news is that we have implemented many things over the past couple of years that will have an impact. So, tier three gasoline is a great example of that. We're seeing our air quality improve, pollutants coming down the things that lead to that greenhouse effect that you're referring to. We have more to do. 

As we continue, I just had a meeting this past week where I had an opportunity to engage with the Secretary of Energy for the Biden administration. We had a wonderful conversation about things that we can do with the help of the federal government to enhance and improve energy production in our state and across the west. That includes alternative forms of energy. One of the problems the federal government is actually hindering our ability to advance energy production in the state. When it comes to permitting transmission lines and solar projects, wind projects, it can take up to a decade to get the permits that are needed for those types of projects. They've agreed with us that we need to streamline those things. Also, the critical minerals that are necessary for many of these renewable energy projects like solar are found here in Utah and throughout the west, but we can't get access to them. And we have to rely on China for those types of things.

The administration admitted that that was a problem, that we need to unlock those critical minerals for safe mining practices in the west, so that we can continue to work on these renewable energy projects. We also talked about carbon capture so that we can continue to use the traditional fossil fuels in cleaner ways. Until alternative forms of energy are more economical. And that carbon capture technology much of which is being worked on and developed right here in Utah and in other places throughout the west will have a huge impact. And then the big announcement a couple of weeks ago in conjunction with Wyoming and Rocky Mountain Power about the possibility of nuclear energy technology that could have huge impacts on our emissions throughout not just the west but throughout the entire world.

So those are areas where we're really focused on improving. And I will say, we have to do more on the drought side as well. Utah is just 1% of the United States and a fraction of the world. And so, we have to be prepared for these types of drought events which means more conservation. It means it means changing the way that we utilize water. It means incentivizing better behaviors, less grass, more xeriscaping, those types of things, additional storage especially underground storage as well as we continue to enhance the aquifers underground where water doesn't evaporate. There's some great projects in Iron County around that. So, there are so many things that we are doing but so many more that we should be doing and we'll be doing over the coming months.

BRIAN MULLAHY, KUTV2: Governor, two-part question. Will you impose a statewide firework ban, and if not, what should local communities be doing?

GOVERNOR COX: So, I received a legal opinion last night from the Attorney General's office and from my general counsel that I do not have the authority to implement a statewide ban. I do think it's a good idea. I believe, look for me, fireworks are awesome. We love fireworks. We do fireworks every year with my kids and with my family, but there are rare circumstances when things are so dire.

If it were up to me, a really easy fix would just say that any areas that are in exceptional drought shouldn't have fireworks. That's just a really easy fix. The statute is pretty messy. It's tough for communities. We're trying to get a legal opinion out to local communities so they can understand exactly what they can do under the law. And I'm encouraging local communities to put those restrictions in place. They do have the authority to do that to some extent and that depends on how close they are to wild land, urban interfaces.

Again, the statute is fairly complex. We want to get them good legal analysis on what they can do. I've told the legislature; I think it's a terrible idea not to have additional restrictions this year. They haven't shown any interest in doing anything more around that. So, we are relying on local governments to put those restrictions in place. I would also say, look, people just please, this is not the year. Even if you think you're being extremely safe, it's so easy. One spark, everything is so dry, it's drier than you think.

We saw this in 2012, when I was talking to biologists, sagebrush which is the most resilient plant we have in the state that the sagebrush was actually dying because it was so dry. And when the plants and soils have that little moisture in them, they basically act like toilet paper, one spark and it just runs. And so, you also need to know that just because you can do fireworks, if you start a fire, you will be held liable for that fire. You will be responsible for paying to have that fire put out and any damages that occur. So again, just be extremely careful.

BEN WINSLOW, FOX-13: So, to be clear under your emergency powers that you enacted for a pandemic, for droughts, for floods, for fires you cannot do it for fireworks?

GOVERNOR COX: That's what I was told last night.

BRIAN MULLAHY, KUTV2: Did you request that opinion?


BRIAN MULLAHY, KUTV2: And had the attorney general said that you could impose a firework ban, would you?



GOVERNOR COX: I would have imposed a firework ban. What I think should happen is that I think we should impose a band statewide and then allow communities to designate safe zones where they want to have fireworks allowed. Now, communities can do a version of that, but in the reverse. In this case, fireworks are allowed unless and until the city says otherwise. And again, there are some restrictions on the city's ability to do that under the statute. 

Now, I would also encourage as cities are looking at this again their attorneys are going to have to look through this and make sure that they do it the right way. We have cities that have placed those restrictions already. And so, I'm encouraging citizens to look very closely at what they have. I just again, I just can't emphasize this enough guy. It's worse than you think it is out there right now. And maybe we'll get some storms. I'm praying, I'm hoping that we'll get some storms between now and July 4th.

But my understanding is last year we had over 60 fires in the state that were caused by fireworks. Over 60 human caused fires that didn't need to happen and one of those can turn into a million dollar a day fire. That's how damaging these things can be. So just reminder, fireworks are legal right now. They're illegal until two days before the 4th of July they are illegal. Where I do have authority, where the state fire Marshall has authority is outside of incorporated areas. And we do have, we have put that into place that restriction on fireworks outside of incorporated cities.

BEN WINSLOW, FOX-13: So, at this point, do you go back to the legislature and say, well I don't have the power now, but I want the power next year.

GOVERNOR COX: Well, they have the power now. I doubt they're going to give me that power if they're not interested in doing it themselves. 

BEN WINSLOW, FOX-13: What are you seeking fireworks restrictions next year then? We only allow a couple of days before, a couple days after, we have certain hourly restrictions. Are you going to ask the legislature to maybe consider an all-out ban?

GOVERNOR COX: What I would like, no I would not ask the legislature for an all-out ban. What I would like to see happen is in areas of exceptional drought, that there's just an automatic ban. Whenever we're in a condition of exceptional drought in that area and again, not all of the states in exceptional drought but most of the state is. That if you're a community, that's an exceptional drought, that to me is a very easy categorization.

It's just common sense. And that's the type of thing I would like to see the legislature put in place. So, we don't have to do this every... Every year the legislature messes with the fireworks code. Every year, there's some restrictions here and less restrictions here. We fight about it every year. And to me, the easiest way to do is just say, "Hey, let's just look at the conditions. Let's the weather decide whether or not we have fireworks." That just seems like common sense, but I don't know.

KATIE MCKELLAR, DESERET NEWS: What's the legal explanation of why you can't enact the statewide ban?

GOVERNOR COX: So, I don't have the legal explanation in front of me right now. We got the opinion last night. I had a quick conversation with my general counsel this morning. But what I was told is that we can suspend statutes in a case of emergency. We can't alter the statute. And that doesn't allow me the authority to ban fireworks.

Reporter: We do have some remote reporters joining us. We'd like to go to Emily with KUER.

EMILY MEANS, KUER: Hi, governor Cox. You talked a little bit about what the state can do to address the climate crisis going forward and drought is a big part of that. But I want to ask you about something that maybe the state hasn't been considering and stick with me here. There's a little bit of background, but there is a small city in Summit County that has temporarily banned new development to deal with its water crisis. Obviously, the state is in extreme drought but we do have a lot of new development plan for the future including huge state- run projects like the inland port. So, do you think Utah should be pumping the brakes on development so we can get a handle on our water crisis going forward?

GOVERNOR COX: So, what I think is that every community has to make that determination. All new development has to go through a process where they have to be able to show the water resources that are available for future growth. We've seen this, that's not uncommon. There are lots of towns and communities that have limited home building permits or building permits at all because they don't have the water resources until they get those water resources. So, this is something that has happened throughout the history of Utah.

We are the fastest growing state in the nation. And so, it's something we always have to be aware of. Those are things that should definitely happen on a community-by-community basis. This is one of the mistakes that we do make is just that assuming that every water district is the same. They're all extremely different. Many have significant resources that could last for decades and decades. Others have more limited resources. So those decisions will definitely have to be made at a local level. And they are made every time a building permit is issued. They have to be able to prove that they have the water available for that.

So, the minute you limit growth, then only rich people can live here. And I'm not interested in that at all. I am interested in using the resources that we have more wisely and what we should be doing instead of limiting growth is limiting park strips next to fast food joints that make no sense where we end up watering the sidewalk. I mean, the next time you drive through any of our major cities just look at those park strips in business districts. They do absolutely nothing to add to the community. All they do is waste water significantly.

So, on a quarter acre lot, one watering is about 3000 gallons of water on average. That's a tremendous amount of water that we're using for again, for very small spaces. So, there's so much more we can do to limit our water, to conserve our water, besides just limiting the ability for our kids and grandkids to live here.

BEN WINSLOW, FOX-13: Governor, are you contemplating more water restrictions in the near future?

GOVERNOR COX: So those water restrictions again will be made at the local level. We'll continue to watch this. We meet regularly with what we refer to affectionately as the water buffaloes. The people that run those local water districts, the conservation districts throughout the state. Look, they are very attuned to this. They know what's happening and they know what they need to do. They have implemented restrictions all across the state, you all have reported on those and we will see those continue. What you will see from me, is we will be working with the legislature, preparing for the coming session on some fairly significant what we hope will be some significant improvements to conservation efforts across the state.

REPORTER: Emily has a follow-up question for you.

EMILY MEANS, KUER: So, I know that a lot of these decisions are made at the local level but certainly the state is pushing growth and even its own projects. I mean, in Wasatch County MIDA is building a huge ski resort there. And that's something that the local districts don't necessarily have as much control of. So just looking ahead 20 years this drought could continue on and get even worse. How is the state planning around that with its plans for development as well?

GOVERNOR COX: Yeah, well, exactly what I just mentioned. We understand the importance of development here in the state. And we are a very pro-development state. I'm not ashamed of that in any way. And droughts have come and droughts have gone throughout history. We understand that that climate is changing. There's no question about that. And so, what we're doing to prepare for that is exactly what I just mentioned. We continue to work with our local water districts to develop new sources of water, new storage of water, and then most importantly new conservation efforts of water to make sure that we're using less per capita than we are right now. That's how we prepare for the future. And that's how we prepare for the growth that will surely continue to come.

REPORTER: Okay that's all the time we have for our television broadcast. You can join us back here next month for The Governor's Monthly News Conference.

NARRATOR: This has been The Governor's Monthly News Conference. For transcripts, full video and more information visit pbsutah.org/governor.

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