‘You definitely don’t want to be one of those places’: Governor says Southern Utah can’t abandon growth

ST. GEORGE — In response to assertions Southern Utah may need to turn away from being a growth-based economy because of dwindling water resources, Gov. Spencer Cox said that is a downward path that could be a point of no return.

In a file photo, Gov. Spencer Cox participates in a panel discussion during “One Utah Summit,” Cedar City, Utah, Oct. 6, 2021 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

Cox was responding to a question from St. George News during the taping of the PBS Utah Monthly Governor’s News Conference program on Thursday in Salt Lake City.

“It’s hard to not be in growth economies,” Cox said. “If you want to look at some states or some cities that have not had growth economies, I think the comparisons are fairly stark and you definitely don’t want to be in one of those places.

“Once you go out of a growth economy, then in a place like St George one of two things happen: Your economy falls apart or you just become a place where only the ultra-wealthy can live.”

Last week, members of the St. George City Council warned that a dwindling water supply could put the brakes on the city and Southern Utah’s growth economy. 

“At some point, we will no longer be a growth economy,” Council member Gregg McArthur said. “When do we start planning for that?”

But there are also those who through social media or during council meetings express welcoming the idea of growth coming to a halt in Southern Utah.

To that, Cox said that usually comes from those looking at their own quality of life, rather than the quality of life for the community as a whole.

“Usually people I talk to that have that mindset are people who have just moved here recently or don’t have kids and grandkids,” Cox said. “I got mine. I don’t want anybody else to get theirs.”

A graphic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows the snowpack totals in Utah as of March 17, 2022, compared with the average from 1991 to 2020 | Photo by U.S. Department of Agriculture, St. George News | Click to enlarge

With the Spring Equinox three days away, Cox said the state’s snowpack level is normal, averaging 85% of the snowpack it usually has. Southwest Utah has been faring better, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, at 95%. And just to the north, the Beaver River Valley is at 113%.

A year ago, the state was averaging in the 60% range with Southwest Utah at 32%. 

With years of drought that have been described as the worst in a millennium, Cox said Utah is in need of something more abnormal to catch up with a water deficit. 

“In the past, we wouldn’t have blinked an eye at 85% of snowpack,” he said. “The problem is when you have 85% snowpack on the back of a couple of really bad years, we need three or four of those 115% years.”

To underscore that point, the state’s reservoirs are at record lows. Lake Powell, which had been looked at as a possible additional source of water in Southern Utah, reached a water-level low enough where another drop of 35 feet or more will mean the Glen Canyon Dam can no longer generate electricity. 

Experts have said the spring runoff should help the water level of the lake and other reservoirs rise again. However, Cox said that ultimately Southern Utah needs to look at additional water storage as a key to growth, rather than just additional sources of water.  

“We know that that water storage and water resources are absolutely critical,” Cox said. “We have to look at everything and we’re going to have to think outside the box on some of these things.”

Saying that droughts “don’t last forever,” Cox said that Southern Utah’s people and its leaders ultimately will need to make hard decisions on what kind of community it wants to be as far as growth. 

“Those conversations are important conversations to have. What are we going to do? Where’s the growth going to come from? Do we have enough to support that growth?” Cox said. “There are hard decisions that will have to be made and Mother Nature will play a role in how difficult those decisions are going to be.”

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2022, all rights reserved.

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