Governor's News Conference

March 22, 2023

"The good news is also that that snow has not really even started to melt yet. And yet the Great Salt Lake, is already up two feet from its November low, which again, thanks to Mother Nature and some structural modifications to the causeway berm." Governor Cox

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

GOVERNOR COX: Good morning, everyone. It's great to see all of you again. Thank you for joining us. I hope you've all recuperated from the legislative session. A few of you were looking a little ragged there towards the end. I hope our legislators have gotten a little rest and relaxation as well.

We have not, the legislative session does not end for us at the end of 45 days. We're in the process of reviewing all 575 bills, a record this year. Not a record that I'm proud of, but a record nonetheless. And we're anxious to get through that as our constitutional deadline ends next week. So, we're still in the throes of the legislative session. But before we get to your questions, I just want to amplify a major announcement that we made yesterday.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is very generously donating more than 5,700 water shares to the state of Utah. This is the largest ever permanent water donation that will benefit the Great Salt Lake. It represents more than 20,000-acre feet annually. Put that another way, this gift is about the size of the Little Del Reservoir. That is a tremendous amount of water. And in fact, the shares provide up to 50 cubic feet per second of water, which again, is the equivalent amount of water for 20,000 single family home connections. We're incredibly grateful for the church, for their generosity and their commitment to preserving this critical ecosystem.

We are working with other possible donors as well, and we'll have more information as those plans are crystallized and finalized. Every bit will make a difference. And so, we're happy, this is something that we started a year ago.

We're grateful for the legislature. This would not have even been possible to do a year ago without the substantial changes that have been made to water policy. Now, also making a difference of course, we hit a record yesterday, at least for this time of year, not an all-time record for winter season, but a record for March 15th. We'll be at record conditions today and there's a substantial storm. It looks like we're going to get another atmospheric river coming in next week with potentially more water than the storm that we just received. That is incredible news for our water season, for filling our reservoirs, for filling Lake Powell and of course, the Great Salt Lake.

The good news is also that that snow has not really even started to melt yet. And yet the Great Salt Lake, is already up two feet from its November low, which again, thanks to Mother Nature and some structural modifications to the causeway berm. Just to put that into perspective, the lake only rose a foot last spring, so we're already up two feet. Some estimates now we're receiving is that we should get up to a total of five feet, which is incredible. We are about 10 feet below the lake's average. So, to get five feet of that back potentially in one spring kind of exceeds our wildest dreams starting the fall of last year.

However, there is a downside to our water year, and that is flood risks. Flooding is the number one disaster risk in Utah historically. And whenever you get rain on top of snow, like we've had these past couple weeks, there's a very good chance of flooding. We've already seen some of that in Washington County. We saw rivers far exceeding their banks and their natural capacity yesterday and through the night in Washington County.

So, this week we sent a letter to all mayors in the state encouraging them to work with their county partners to ensure emergency plans are in place and with their help, our communities will be ready. In addition, today, I will be issuing an executive order allowing all state employees to take up to eight hours of administrative leave to help with local flood mitigation efforts. Between now and August 31st, state employees can use work time to pitch in filling sandbags and joining other flood responses in their county or an adjacent county. 

We want an army of residents ready, and I know we will have volunteers joining them from across the state as they're called upon to do so. I would just also like to add that we're calling on all Utahns to use common sense. We have not had really spring runoff like this since 2011 last time. A lot of people have moved to our states since we had potential flooding like this. So, it's very important to keep children away from fast moving water. Please do not drive in flooded streets.

The potential for drowning is real. Stay alert. Listen to the news and weather alerts when storms are headed your way, especially if you are in the outdoors. Also, check your insurance policy. Many homeowners don't realize that flood insurance is not part of their regular homeowner's insurance. It is a separate policy. So, if you are in a flood-prone area, you should explore flood insurance. I will mention that it usually takes 30 days for those policies to kick in. So, again, as we near flood season, especially in northern Utah, I would encourage people to look at that.

There are lots of great tips to protect your home at beready.utah.gov and floodfacts.utah.gov. Again, we have already seen flash floods this year, including this week's deadly tragedy in Buckskin Gulch. So, we're asking everyone to please, please play it safe this spring. A big thanks to our first responders, state parks employees, search and rescue, and others who have already assisted with the search and rescue efforts as well as flood mitigation. Just as we look towards the future, the storm that's coming in, again, will bring substantial water but cooler temperatures which is good and helpful.

What we need is the valley snow to go first. Then the lower elevation snow and then the higher elevation snow. We're hoping that happens in an orderly fashion over the next two months. But that, we do not have any control over that. So, we ask people to be prepared and to be safe.

With that, I'm happy to answer any questions that you may have.

BEN WINSLOW, FOX-13: Governor, you signed a series of bills dealing with the Great Salt Lake. You convinced they're going to work? Are they going to get water into the lake or are you just relying on Mother Nature? It seems like the legislature punted a little.

GOVERNOR COX:  Yeah, no, I disagree that the legislature punted at all. In fact, I think it's important to look at all of the bills together and all of the funding together over the past two years.

The good news is that you are going to see a substantial increase in water getting to the lake, getting to all of our lakes and reservoirs because of what they did last year. And I have to remind people that when laws pass, stuff doesn't immediately happen. There's this expectation that, okay, the law passed. Now, what's happening? Everything they did last year is going to start taking effect this spring.

The money didn't become available until July 1st. Then we get the grants out for, for example, for the agriculture optimization work. We had 70 million last year. Most of those projects then get funded in the fall and start getting implemented in the spring. We got an additional 200 million in ag optimization this year. Same process will happen.

So again, it takes time for these projects to take effect. However, and we'll say this, all of the water that was conserved last year, right? Where we ended the year better than we expected. In fact, we basically ended the year about where we started. So, there was not a net decrease. In fact, there was a net increase in some places. Many of our reservoirs were over 50% full.

Now why does that matter? Because we were already seen with some of this runoff that those reservoirs are filling to capacity, which then allows them to spill over and again, that water gets more downstream in including the lake. In fact, Salt Lake has already had releases from their reservoirs that will go into the Great Salt Lake to make room for the snow, the water that is coming.

So yes, we are going to see water get into the lake. I will also say that one of the most important bills we passed this year will be the Great Salt Lake Commissioner. That position is going to be very helpful because we have lots of people working on this, but they're working in silos. And again, we want to make sure that the water does get to the end of the road, does get to the Great Salt Lake.

There was another bill that was passed that will change again, that incentive structure so that we can measure the water that is actually being saved with all of these projects, and then giving the owners of that water an opportunity to lease that water, to get it to the lake. We've set aside money for that leasing.

So, all of these things have a compounding effect, Ben, and I'm really excited. I mean this sincerely, the future of the lake is really now being set in motion in a positive way, in a way that it's never been done before. I mentioned this, we went back and looked in 1964 when the lake was at its lowest levels until this past year. And there was nothing being done to preserve the lake over time. And so, the changes to water policy will impact not just the lake, but all of our reservoirs. Conservation is real. It was not real two years ago in our state, but it is real now. And this isn't just going to help the Great Salt Lake. It's going to help Lake Powell as well. And our downstream neighbors. And so. I'm very excited and optimistic for these changes.

MARCOS ANDRADE, TELEMUNDO: Governor, this year we had the 40-year anniversary of the great floodings that we saw in Utah in 1983. I'm wondering if you think that Utah is better prepared for flooding now than it was back then? 

GOVERNOR COX:  Yeah, we, we are much better prepared for flooding than we were in 1983, in 1984. A couple things that I think are important to note, 1982 was almost as big as 1983. And so, and then again, 1984 was almost as big as 1983. And so, when you had those three years in a row, that was unprecedented. We had never seen water like that. We also have newer infrastructure and newer reservoirs to capture some of that water before it gets to other places. And, and so we are better prepared.

Now, all of that being said there, there is definitely going to be flooding. We know that. And again, we've already seen that in Southern Utah. Hopefully we don't see the, you know, homes being lost like we saw several years ago, kind of the last major flooding that we had in Washington County where literally homes were washed away.

There have been infrastructure changes there as well. A lot of preparation work that was been done in case that were to ever happen again. And so, I do feel like we are better prepared, but we do know that a lot of this flooding will be localized as well, which means that it will be a neighbor's basement, right? Because a drain is plugged or their gutter is iced over and the snow is melting off the roof and the rain is coming down. So, we've seen some flooding like that and there's not much we can do there except for first responders, friends and neighbors jumping in and helping each other out.

BEN WINSLOW, FOX-13: Governor, are you enacting a total de facto total abortion ban by signing the bill that limits access to clinics? And what do you anticipate will happen next as a result of that?

GOVERNOR COX: Yeah, absolutely not that. That is not the case. In fact, we were asked by abortion providers to clarify the law because what would've happened, again, assuming, depending on the court case that is moving forward, the trigger law that was passed several years ago would have enacted a de facto complete abortion ban because there wasn't clarity around rape, incest and the health and safety of the mother.

And so, this bill clarifies that so that those abortions can continue. They will continue in a hospital setting, but there is nothing that would prevent those from continuing. And the hospitals were involved in the drafting of that bill, and they were supportive of the bill as it passed.

BEN WINSLOW, FOX-13: Go ahead. Sorry.

EMILY ANDERSON STERN, THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE: Now that you've signed that bill, I'm wonder, and as a federal court considers taking the abortion pill, mifepristone off the market. I'm wondering if you're concerned at all about Utahans, especially those in rural areas who I know you care so much about having adequate access to lifesaving abortion care in medical emergencies. And if so, what's being done to address that now that there are fewer places where people can seek abortions?

GOVERNOR COX: Well, none of those places were in rural Utah, so they'll go to a hospital and get that care.

EMILY ANDERSON STERN, THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE: Are you concerned, though, at all about having adequate care? Are staffing shortages at hospitals and- 

GOVERNOR COX:  No, we don't have staffing shortages at our hospitals right now.

REPORTER: Okay. We do have some reporters joining us remotely. I want to go to Caitlin Keith with Utah Public Radio. Go ahead with your question, Caitlin.

CAITLIN KEITH, UTAH PUBLIC RADIO: Okay. Yesterday, Governor, you and a group of other leaders from around the state released a statement talking about Utah's energy policy and the ozone transfer rule that was released by the Environmental Protection Agency, and  the threat that that poses to Utahns. How does that ozone transfer rule harm Utahns and the state?

GOVERNOR COX: Yeah, sure. Thank you. So, we're very disappointed in this rule, the ozone transfer rule that was released by the administration yesterday. We are doing energy the right way here in the state of Utah. And that is that we are working on an all of the above energy policy. We have tremendous new energy resources coming online that reduce much less carbon much, much better, these types of energy resources.

Of course, we're seeing solar and wind, we're doing geothermal in the state and we're working with other states on a hydrogen hub. All of these are very important new renewable resources for energy. And none of them are able to completely replace the base load energy that we rely on in the state of Utah. And what this rule again, recklessly does, it would cause potentially many of our power plants to go offline before they are scheduled to go offline, which would put we estimate upwards of 2 million people at risk for blackouts. It would make energy much more expensive. We've seen what happens when we don't have baseload energy and the grid is not where it should be in places like California and Texas. 

And again, we believe that this is incredibly reckless. It harms the economy; it harms the people who can least afford it and it just makes no logical sense whatsoever. It will not have a net reduction on global carbon emissions. It's just ridiculous. And so as often happens with this administration, we'll end up in court and we feel confident we'll be able to be victorious in the lawsuits that are sure to come. 

LINCOLN GRAVES, KUTV: Governor, we had a wet winter, perhaps we'll have another wet winter next year. Do you think that causes any state leaders to perhaps take their eye off the ball when it comes to addressing drought concerns and water concerns come going into the future?

GOVERNOR COX:  Yeah, you know, this is certainly a narrative that I keep hearing and I, yet no one is saying that at all. In fact, you're hearing just the opposite from state leaders, legislative leaders, my administration, what we're saying is this is a great opportunity for us and what's great about it, again, the changes that we've put in law over the past two years, I don't anticipate any of those being undone at all.

And so, what we've done is we've put ourselves on a path to significantly reduce the amount of water that we're using. A conservation path. That that is something we should have done before. I've said that before, but we've been blessed with excess water in this state, again, because of great decisions that were made by leaders many generations ago.

And so, we've been able to grow unlike some other states, we've been able to grow without really checking our water use and this over again, the drought over the past couple years has given us an opportunity to help change public opinion, to understand how important that is. And people have been so willing to conserve and legislators have been so willing to pass these now close to two dozen bills by the time I get them all signed over two years and a billion dollars in water infrastructure and conservation money. And so no, I'm not hearing that from anyone. I've yet to hear a single person in leadership say, we're good. We don't have to do anymore. What I'm hearing is we're not good, but we're on a path to be better and we have to be prepared for winters like this so that we can keep that water, make it stretch longer.

Because if you look, it's fascinating to me. There's been a lot of concern about how we get to average on the Great Salt Lake, right? I would love you to go back and look at the last hundred years of that Great Salt Lake. It's never at average. It's never close to average. It looks like this, it's way above the line then it's way below the line. And what I like to say is living in Utah is all about preparing ourselves for the next drought, because it's going to come. So, I hope I desperately hope we get a couple years like this in a row, but I'm not expecting that to be the case. We had a great year in 2011, and then we really didn't have any great years. I guess 2017 was decent, was above average. But that's one year in 12, right?

So, we're going to keep preparing as if drought is normal because drought has always been normal in our state. It's just been worse over the past decade.

MARCOS ANDRADE, TELEMUNDO: Governor Cox, immigrant right organizations including Comunidades Unidas are calling veto HB 209. They say that the bill is overly broad and may effectively prohibit undocumented students from participating in school sports. I'm wondering if you've had a chance to go over the bill and whether those concerns will factor into your decision.

GOVERNOR COX:  Yeah, yeah. So, here's the thing. I appreciate you asking that question because those concerns were, there were some concerns about the bill as it was going through. The bill was changed and we thought all of those concerns were addressed, and we didn't hear from anybody. And then just as I was about to sign the bill yesterday, I got a letter and so I paused to review the bill, and I reached out to the sponsor of the bill to Representative Teuscher, expressed the concerns that had been expressed to me and what we got back, the purpose of this bill was actually to allow more participation in sports, not less.

The purpose of the bill is to allow homeschool students and others to be able to participate in organized sports. The bill sponsor assured me that that was not the intention. That should not happen. That the documentation does not need to be even from the United States, that it can be from anywhere that they come from. And we talked to the high school athletic association. They did not feel like this would have an impact.

However, so I am planning to sign the bill, but what I did was I got a promise from the bill sponsor that we would look at this over the next month and we would talk to all the high schools, all the middle schools in the state, and if there are students that would be impacted by this, we will call a special session to come in and change the bill.

So, we're not trying to exclude anybody from playing. And I feel comfortable that we can, if it is impacting people, we can fix it. And I've got to promise to do that. Thank you.

VANESSA HUDSON, DAILY UTAH CHRONICLE: Governor, in the last week of the legislative session, several bills were discussed about diversity, equity, and inclusion. For example, SB 283, which is now a study originally sought to prohibit diversity, equity, and inclusion in institutions of higher education. I'm wondering what are your thoughts about restricting these programs and organizations and do you think they're important to college students?

GOVERNOR COX:  Sure. Yeah. So, I think there's a little nuance to that question. There's good diversity and inclusion and there's not good diversity and inclusion. And there is a, you see a little bit of both of that, unfortunately. And it's too bad that those terms get used differently. I think we talk past each other sometimes. I do think that there are some very extreme versions of that mindset that have led to unfortunately bad policy and terrible divides.

We saw that, I think it was Stanford in California recently, where a judge was shouted down and a diversity equity inclusion dean came in and he apologized afterward, but I think acted incredibly inappropriate. And so, I think it's important that we look at those programs and make sure they're doing what they're supposed to do. And that is make sure that Utah is a place where everyone, everyone feels accepted. Everyone has a voice. That is very important to me.

Those bills either didn't pass or got changed drastically. And I think that's really important. I always tell people, again, you can judge the legislature by what gets passed, not by what gets introduced. And so, I feel good about where the session ended up. And I think, again, I think it is important that we work to make sure that everyone feels included, but we don't have to exclude people to make that happen. And that's unfortunately what happens with some of these DEI programs.

BEN WINSLOW, FOX-13: So why did you sign the bill then that the education bill that deals with what can be taught in classrooms in regards to race, gender, sexual orientation, meritocracy, things like that.

GOVERNOR COX: Yeah, because it was changed drastically. And so much of what I've seen that the hostility towards that bill, it was directed to the first substitute that again, was eviscerated and got changed. I would've vetoed that. What ultimately passed, I think most Utahns, if they just read the language of that bill, it makes sense to them just saying you can't, you know, you can't blame kids for things that happened many years ago.

We can teach those things, and it's important to teach those things. We should not be scared of history, especially the bad parts of our history. We have to teach those things. But that's very different than, and all that all that bill says is, you know, you can't tell white kids that they're inherently race racist. Right? And I think most people would agree with that. So, I felt comfortable with the way the bill was changed and that's why I signed it. 

MARTHA HARRIS, KUER: Governor, there were some educators, including also the Utah Education Association, asked you to veto that bill, the most recent version of that. What's your response to educators who are concerned about how this bill will be implemented?

GOVERNOR COX:  Yeah, I, again, the same thing that I said now. I don't think it will impact 99% of what's already being taught in the classrooms. In almost every classroom, we have great teachers. We have an amazing public education system, and so I don't think they need to worry about it. Certainly, I've looked at the curriculum in my kids' classrooms and I think every parent should have that opportunity. And they do. Teachers love when parents engage. And I just, I don't see any problems with anything that's been taught in any of my kids' classrooms causing any problems at all.

BEN WINSLOW, FOX-13:  Any bills you are considering vetoing at this point?

GOVERNOR COX:  Yeah. So, Ben, I knew that question would come up you.

BEN WINSLOW, FOX-13: 99 to go, so-

GOVERNOR COX:  Yeah, we're getting close. I can tell you this, we had, we had 35, maybe it was closer to 40, I don't remember the exact number bills on a potential veto list that we were watching very closely, and all of them either died, didn't pass or were changed substantially. So that entire list got down to zero.

Obviously, we're looking at things as they come in and, and as we get requests, I just mentioned with, with HB 209, that was one that was not on a veto list, but then we had to push pause, put it over in the we're concerned about this pile, looked at it, called the sponsor.

That's a process I go through, make sure that we are understanding the book correctly, what it's going to do. And so right now, I don't have any for sure vetoes on that list, but there are several we're still looking at. I always get asked, well, what ones were you going to veto that were on your list. And you know, I don't need to make any enemies with legislators because they, you know, those bills didn't pass.

I'll give you one example. The bill that would've overridden the county on a potential mining operation in the canyons right here. Right? That was one I would've vetoed, but it didn't pass anyway. 

REPORTER: Okay. That is all the time we have for our television broadcast portion. Thank you so much for joining us.

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

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