Low reservoir levels and record-breaking temperatures throughout July have pushed Top of Utah farmers to alternative approaches in farming. This is the second year they have faced drought conditions, and by making modifications, most farmers have been able to survive the dry conditions this year.
Echo and East Canyon reservoirs are the primary sources of the agricultural water for Morgan, Weber and Davis counties. At the beginning of the summer the Weber-Davis Counties Canal Co.'s storage water in these two reservoirs was 22,000 acre-feet below capacity, said Ivan Ray, general manager. Fifty percent of the water the company delivers is for agricultural use.
Even though 2012 was a drought year, the company had sufficient water storage carryover from 2011, which was an extra-wet water year, to allow for full delivery to everyone. But the shortages resulting from low runoff and less available storage at the start of the 2013 water year have caused the canal company to limit usage with reductions to its customers this year of 25 percent.
The company asked all major users to submit plans to the canal company this spring, showing how they would make the necessary reductions for the water season, which ends
The goal for 2013 is to have a combined carryover of 6,000 acre-feet available in the two reservoirs for use next year.
"I am pleased with the response of the agriculture community and all other users, including residential users, for their conservation efforts, which have paid off significantly," Ray said. "We are halfway through the water delivery year and as of July 15, agriculture has saved 9,000 acre-feet of water. All other users had saved 3,200 acre-feet."
The combined reduction is more than half of the 22,000 acre-feet needed to cover the shortage.
Morgan dairy farmer Barclay Earl has been farming for 43 years and hasn't experienced a drought like the current one.
Earl said the long, hot spell has completely dried up some of the wells and natural flows, forcing farmers to dry farm. Streams are only scrabble.
"It rained in July." He hesitated in frustration. "Well, I have cracks that are an inch and a half wide," referring to his parched fields.
Typically, Earl receives 100 acre-feet from Echo Reservoir, but this year his allotment was cut in half.
Most years, he plans to produce 85 percent of the forage he needs for his herd, but without water this year, he was only able to grow 25 percent of the forage. He supplements what he grows by purchasing hay, but the drought has driven the cost of hay to triple what it cost last year. He began to reduce the size of his herd to cut expenses in response to the drought.
Currently, it costs Earl $20 to produce 100 pounds of milk, but he can sell it for only $17. He rues the loss of dairy farms in Morgan but realizes sometimes farmers need to close down operations. He said that 40 years ago there were 57 dairy farms in Morgan, and now there are only four. In all of Utah, there are only 231 dairy farms.
Earl pointed out that once a farm shuts down, it is permanently closed. New farms just aren't happening.
Farmers who grow row crops need water until the first frost. The canal company is hoping it will be able to deliver water until Oct. 1 this year. When the delivery of water is shut off, the row crops begin to die.
Tyson Roberts grows assorted vegetables on 60 acres in Davis County. He anticipated receiving 60 percent of the usual allotment of water but thought there might be another reduction after wheat farmers have been able to mow their fields.
The control mechanisms on irrigation ditches require a minimum water level to work properly. His ditch company has combined ditches this year to achieve water flows that are high enough to allow the mechanism to work. When the farmers flood-irrigate, they receive increased water flow from the combined ditches, but for less time.
Roberts has also shifted the locations of crops on his acreage. He has moved the onions and sweet corn, which need more water, nearer the source; pumpkins and squash do not need as much water, so he is growing them in drier fields. Even with these accommodations, he has seen a lower yield in sweet corn.
As the drought continues, orchards will be affected, but trees will not suffer permanent damage if they are short of water for only a year. Peaches, apples and pears continue to need water this year while they bear fruit.
Thayne Tagge, a fruit and vegetable grower, is confident he won't be without water in his orchards. In 2008 and 2010, he installed drip irrigation systems in two of his Perry orchards using grant money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service.
His drip irrigation system is based on sand media filtration. Two 36-inch-diameter tanks are filled with layers of sand and gravel. Sand filters the water as the water flows through it. After every three hours of flow, the direction is reversed and the debris is flushed out with the backflow.
The drip system significantly reduced the amount of water Tagge needs to maintain his orchards. This year Tagge has used only one of his water shares and has been able to lease two shares to other farms.
By mid-August, the USDA had designated 25 Utah counties as drought disaster counties, and another four are vulnerable. Weber, Davis, and Box Elder counties are among those that have been declared disaster areas ,and Morgan is at risk.
Disaster declarations enable farmers to get low-interest loans, but the loans need to be paid back. If the drought continues another year, however, farmers would be faced with crop yields too low to make repayments.