Drought, housing, gondola, galore: Gov. Cox weighs in on big problems facing Utah

Gov. Spencer Cox speaks at the PBS Utah Governor’s
Monthly News Conference at the Eccles Broadcast Center in Salt Lake
City on Thursday, July 15, 2021.

Gov. Spencer Cox speaks at the PBS Utah Governor’s Monthly News Conference at the Eccles Broadcast Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 15, 2021. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)



SALT LAKE CITY — How Utah's drought is threatening to put Utah farmers out of business.

Utah's skyrocketing housing prices.

Whether a tax cut could help Utah's inflation woes.

Whether he supports a gondola over buses to address traffic gridlock up Little Cottonwood Canyon.

Gov. Spencer Cox covered a lot of ground in his monthly PBS Utah news conference on Thursday. Here are the highlights.

Drought: Struggling farmers, restrictions, and some 'good news'

The West's drought, Cox said, has been especially concerning for one industry in Utah: farmers.

"As dire as it is with residential watering, it's far worse in our agriculture community," said Cox, who owns an alfalfa farm where he lives in Fairview in Sanpete County. "With COVID and the destructions in supply chains, this year could put farmers out of business."

So Cox said state leaders are looking to get financial assistance to Utah farmers. While there is federal assistance for drought relief, Cox said it can be "very cumbersome and there's a lot of red tape" to get that funding.

"Farmers can't wait a year or two, and they can't feed their livestock," he said. "When you can't feed your livestock you have to sell it off and get rid of it. ... And then you don't have that stock for next year, and so it puts you back for multiple generations."

As they age, many Utah farmers "will just say, 'I'm done. I'm out.'" That leads to loss of open space and food production as they sell their farms, he said.

"We're working with the federal delegation, having conversations right now to see if there are things we can do to help with relief for farmers right now instead of a year or two," he said.

As 98% of Utah remains in either extreme or exceptional drought, Utah reservoirs' water levels are now sitting on average at 58% of normal, Cox said. Now, the state is at a point in the season when it can't expect any more runoff and is relying on its emergency storage.

Out of Utah's largest 42 reservoirs, 26 remain below 55% of available capacity, the governor said.

So Cox said his urgent message to Utahns to conserve water amid the drought remains the same: Only water landscaping twice a week in northern Utah and three times a week in southern Utah. Fix leaky faucets and sprinklers. Prioritize trees over lawns. And only water in early morning or evening.

"There is some good news on the horizon," Cox added, pointing to forecasts over the next few weeks that show a likelihood of above-average precipitation as monsoon season comes in.

"So fingers crossed," the governor said.

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However, while recent storms in Washington County and Iron County were "good news," Cox said, "those aren't drought busters. We need storms like that every day for a few weeks to get out of this drought. But every little bit certainly helps."

Some more good news? So far this year, Cox said water use has been reduced in "almost every water district in the state. So people really are taking this seriously."

Asked if he's contemplating further restrictions amid the drought, Cox said those restrictions "will always happen at the local water district level." He supported local restrictions, whether it's Lehi's $1,000 fine for overwatering lawns, or Weber Basin Water Conservancy District's "three strikes, you're out" policy to shut off irrigation water for violators.

"We encourage water districts. They know their situation better than anyone else," Cox said.

However, he said state officials are contemplating longer-term policy changes, to perhaps restrict "unnecessary grass" on park strips, new requirements to cut back on the amount of grass that's allowed in new developments, and incentivizing businesses and homes to tear out their grass.

"What we're really worried about is what happens next year," Cox said. While the state has enough culinary water to get through 2021, if the drought persists and drains the state's storage capacity next year, it can cause serious concern.

"If we have another year like this one, that's where things get especially dicey," he said.

With Pioneer Day on July 24 approaching, Cox again urged Utahns to forgo personal fireworks while praising most for listening. He said this year the state saw half the number of wildfires it did last year.

"Last week there were 35 total wildfires compared to 63 during the same week in 2020," he said. "Now, 24 of those were human-caused compared with 61 last year. ... (That) shows people are actually listening and taking the measures we need them to take."

So far this year, firefighters have responded to a total of 561 wildfires. Of those, 80% were human-caused, the governor said.

"We applaud and appreciate Utahns who are recreating safely, and we just have to keep this up as we go through this is very, very dangerous and dry time in our state," Cox said.

Housing, inflation woes

Asked if he'd support a tax cut for Utahns given Utah's skyrocketing housing prices and inflation pushing up prices on essentials like gas, Cox said he would.

"Inflation is the worst kind of tax on the poor," he said. "I think there is room for tax relief this coming (legislative) session."

Cox said he hasn't had those conversations with Utah lawmakers yet, and so what that tax cut would look like or how much it would be is to be determined.

"But I would be very supportive of tax relief," he said. "We'll start to work through (the numbers) and make some recommendations to the Legislature, but I suspect that they will agree with me."

As for Utah's housing problem — with 1 in 5 Utah renters considered "severely cost-burdened" according to state and federal data — Cox said he expects the Legislature to do more regarding affordable housing in its upcoming 2022 general session.

On top of funding $50 million for housing and homelessness efforts earlier this year — efforts that take time to produce results — Cox said to expect "another suite of bills that comes before the Legislature" next year "that will further help to increase housing stock and decrease price."

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A Utah gondola?

The debate around whether a gondola or enhanced bus service is the best option to ease traffic in Little Cottonwood Canyon has heated up after the Utah Department of Transportation draft environmental study recently narrowed preferred solutions down to those two. As public comments have poured in, officials extended the public comment period to Sept. 3. UDOT is expected to issue a final recommendation on one option during the 2021-22 ski season.

Cox said in January he was "very interested" and "leaning toward" the gondola proposal, though he was quick to add the public process needs to play out first. Asked about his position today and if he still favors the gondola over buses, Cox said he's "keeping a very open mind" on both options.

The fact that UDOT has so far picked two preferred options shows there's "tremendous support" for both solutions "as well as an ability to fix the problem."

"So I think both options are fantastic. There are pros and cons to both of them, and so I'm keeping an open mind and just waiting for those comments to come in," Cox said. "And I look forward to sitting down with local officials and state officials, the Legislature, and UDOT to help make that final decision."

Either option would be expensive to Utah taxpayers. The 8-mile gondola would cost upward of $592 million. Enhanced bus service and road widening would cost $510 million.

Asked if he thought ski resorts, which support the gondola, should play a significant financial role — especially if the gondola would transport skiers straight to Alta or Snowbird resorts — Cox said the resorts "should have skin in the game" and they have already expressed "they want to have skin in the game."

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"They recognize that they would benefit from this. This is good for them, it's good for business," Cox said. "So they're very excited about this. This is something they've been pushing for a long time. And they're certainly at the table, and they've said all along they're willing to participate."

What that "participation" looks like — or how much ski resorts would contribute — is something Cox said he didn't know, but "those conversations will be had as we get closer to a final decision."

Asked if improving canyon transportation would be too good for business considering how many people are already crowding lift lines, Cox said he's "not as worried about that piece."

"We want to get people up the canyon in an environmentally safe manner," Cox said. "We want to make it easier for people to get up there and enjoy the slopes. Waiting for two hours in your car ... They're not enjoying the ride."

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Katie McKellar

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