‘This sends a message’: Utah governor declares drought state of emergency

In a file photo, Gov. Spencer Cox at the groundbreaking of the Washington County Receiving Center, Hurricane, Utah, March 18, 2022 | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Gov. Spencer Cox has declared a state of emergency in Utah concerning the drought. 

Gov. Spencer Cox speaks during the groundbreaking of the Washington County Receiving Center, Hurricane, Utah, March 18, 2022 | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

The governor announced the order, which is effective immediately and will last 30 days, on Thursday’s taping of the PBS Utah Monthly Governor’s News Conference program in Salt Lake City.

“This sends a message that this is an emergency situation, and we need to treat it that way,” Cox said. 

The most immediate effect of the executive order will be to make emergency resources available to water districts like the Washington County Water Conservancy and the Central Iron County Water Conservancy District. It will also activate the Drought Response Committee as well as increase monitoring and reporting.

Cox issued a similar order last March and said he is optimistic about the new order because of how Utahns responded last year as far as conserving water, adding that Utahns conserved twice the amount of water that state officials had been expecting. 

“We exceeded expectations last year,” Cox said. “We’re hoping for a repeat performance.”

Per legislation enacted in response to the pandemic in 2021 that requires governor emergency orders to get legislative approval to be extended, the emergency order will expire on May 21 unless the state Legislature approves an extension. However, Cox said the order has the approval of Utah Senate leader Sen. Stuart Adams and State Assembly Speaker Brad Wilson.

A graphic shows the reservoir levels in Utah as of April 21, 2022 | Photo by Utah Department of Natural Resources, St. George News | Click to enlarge

Cox said the order will not come with any state government mandates on water usage, adding that he prefers to leave any requirements such as lawn restrictions and watering schedules to local districts, counties and cities.

On Tuesday, the Washington County Commission enacted water conservation measures. Among local cities, Santa Clara enacted a new water ordinance back in February, while St. George, Washington City and Ivins continue to debate new ordinances at their council meetings. 

According to the Utah Department of Natural Resources, as of Thursday, with the exception of Sand Hollow, most of Southern Utah’s local reservoirs are at 69% full or below.

In response to a question from St. George News about whether there is an appetite for any kind of water mandate, considering how pandemic mandates met resistance from protesters and the Legislature, Cox said that’s why it’s important that such decisions are made at a local level. He also referred back to his optimistic outlook based on last year’s effort and said he expects Utahns will make water-saving measures without any extra push.

“I hate the term mandates,” Cox said, adding that he prefers the term “restrictions.” 

“They’re restrictions for a reason,” he added. “If we don’t do this, water won’t come out of the tap.”

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

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