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Utah will dip into rainy day funds to keep up with flood relief, says Gov. Cox

Gov. Spencer Cox holds his monthly news conference at PBS Utah in the Eccles Broadcast Center in Salt Lake City, Thursday, March 16, 2023.
Laura Seitz
Deseret News, pool
Gov. Spencer Cox holds his monthly news conference at PBS Utah in the Eccles Broadcast Center in Salt Lake City, Thursday, March 16, 2023.

Even though $5 million in state money set aside for flood mitigation has already been spent, Utah has plenty in reserve according to Gov. Spencer Cox.

During his April news conference with reporters, Cox said he was laughed at when he asked for flood money in last year’s budget while the state was still experiencing a record-setting drought.

What followed was a record-setting winter where spring runoff is causing flood conditions throughout northern Utah. Even now, there’s still a lot of snow that has yet to melt.

“We're still above record territory, which means that there is a tremendous amount of water still left to come down,” the governor noted.

Although all state-allocated flood money has been spent, Cox said Utah's emergency funds are capable of picking up the slack and legislative leaders have indicated a willingness to dip into that money if needed.

“We don't get to play hindsight with these things. We just move forward,” he said. “We do have plenty of money in reserves, though. You know, those rainy day funds aren't just for economic downturns, they're also for major emergencies.”

According to projections, Utah could see an over $3 billion budget surplus at the end of this fiscal year, which ends in June.

And local efforts are likely to need the help.

Mother Nature decided to throw a wrinkle at us, so we're having to use or repurpose a lot of those [emergency] funds to help fight the fight that we're dealing with now,” said Salt Lake County Emergency Manager Clint Mecham.

It is unclear whether a special session of the Legislature would be needed in order to address funding for the ongoing flood situation, Cox said, but over-spending this winter in areas like snow removal might necessitate moving money around.

The state’s reservoirs — and to a lesser degree, public ponds — will also play a key role in controlling flood water due to snowmelt.

“Water managers have been letting out a ton of water in anticipation of the water that will be coming down,” said Utah Division of Water Resources spokesperson Michael Sanchez. “We've been running [water levels] around 10% lower than normal.”

Those early water releases also have other benefits. According to Sanchez, the Great Salt Lake has risen 3.5 feet since last November and is expected to rise an additional 2-to-4 feet by the end of 2023.

In Salt Lake County, the planning for water releases from local reservoirs began months ago.

“As early as late February, we were having meetings involving city emergency management, county emergency management, flood control and public utilities about when was the proper time to maybe start doing some releases,” said Mecham.

Officials say Utah’s runoff season typically lasts until late June but could run much later this year depending on the weather.

We may be still dealing with runoff issues as late as the 4th of July or maybe even later,” Mecham said. “It really is dependent on how that water comes down the mountain.”

Sean is KUER’s politics reporter.
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