U.S. Water News Online
SALT LAKE CITY -- Farmers and politicians call Utah's
fourth straight year of below-average snowpack a disaster. But a
University of Utah political science professor who writes on Western
water issues says that ignores a simple fact: Deserts are supposed to
``It's a mistake to talk about the drought as a crisis,'' said Dan
McCool. ``We are always in a drought. That's the definition of a
desert. It's ignoring that Utah is a desert that's causing the
McCool isn't alone in his thinking. Volumes have been written
criticizing the West's water subsidies that began with the 1902
creation of the Reclamation Act, which guaranteed water for western
farmers and ranchers no matter the cost. But the practice continues:
82 percent of Utah's water goes to an industry that accounts for 1
percent of the state's economy.
This year's water shortages are focusing new attention on those
figures and the wisdom of farming in the desert. The drought means
farm water cutbacks of 50 percent in northern Utah, and up to 100
percent in the southern desert.
While Salt Lake City, with an average annual rainfall of 16 inches,
isn't considered desert, much of the rest of the state meets the
criteria -- an empty arid region with fewer than 10 inches of rain
per year, where evaporation exceeds rainfall.
And drought, said National Weather Service hydrologist Brian
McInerney, is in the eye of the beholder.
``We try to stay away from that word, because it means different
things to different people,'' McInerney said.
There are three kinds of drought -- climatic, hydrologic and
The first two rely on 100 years of statistics but evaluate snowpack
levels only for the preceding 30 years when deciding what is average
-- a tiny timespan in general weather patterns, but practical for
agricultural and municipal water managers.
An agricultural drought means farmers and ranchers are getting less
water than they need to function -- a subjective measurement McCool
finds irrational, especially for southern and eastern Utah.
``That's like saying Canada is short of palm trees,'' he said. ``We
don't have a water problem in the West. We have an agricultural
An acre-foot of residential water -- about 326,000 gallons and
roughly enough to serve the needs of an average family of five for
one year -- costs Utah households about $320, said Larry Anderson,
the state's director of water resources.
Depending on the efficiency of the irrigation system, an acre of
alfalfa needs from 2.7 to 6.5 acre-feet of water per crop. Center
pivot sprinkler irrigation uses the least water, flood irrigation the
Because most urban water is used on landscaping, water officials are
urging conservation methods such as limited sprinkling and
landscaping with drought-tolerant plants. Sometimes their suggestions
imply that saving water in Salt Lake will help drought-stricken
farmers to the south, but that's not possible. The water systems
Northern Utah water users rely on streamflow from the mountains to
the east; they pay about $5 per acre-foot for their irrigation water,
Anderson said. Southern Utah farmers get their water from the
Colorado River for about $10 per acre-foot. ``That's probably the
most a farmer can pay and still make a profit,'' he said.
Because farmers hold rights to a certain amount of water, there's no
incentive to conserve, even in the desert. If reservoirs are full,
farmers grow extra crops. Utah doesn't even use all of its Colorado
River allotment, because there aren't enough dams to capture it.
Agriculture's contribution to the state's economy hovers at 1
percent, according to Neil Ashdown of the governor's management and
Subsidizing such a small industry ``is doing a great disservice to
the taxpayers of America,'' McCool said. ``I am not suggesting that
we pull the rug out from under all (farmers and ranchers), but it's
time for them to become self-sufficient.''
Cary Peterson, the state's agriculture commissioner, defends
agriculture as crucial to the state's economy and well-being,
especially in rural areas.
``If desert is all you have for the families in a community, farming
makes the difference between whether you eat or not,'' he said.
To farmers, drought or not, getting the water they need is a
``Water in Utah is a property right,'' Peterson said. ``Those rights
were established very early in the West.''
Desert farmers grow high-value fruits and vegetables for export, as
well as high-protein alfalfa -- the foundation of the livestock
industry, which makes up 76 percent of Utah's agriculture economy.
Alfalfa also serves to stabilize the soil in the fragile desert
McCool, however, singled out alfalfa as a Utah crop that would be
extinct without water subsidies because the cost to grow it is
greater than its market value.
``There's this ideal of farmers who work hard -- and they do, they
are the hardest-working people and the least economically viable --
and that's why we keep subsidizing them,'' McCool said.
In Utah, where pioneer farmers are a source of pride, tradition
likely always would trump practical economics.
``We know (desert farmers) are going to grow crops 'til the day they
die,'' said National Soil Conservation Service representative Kresha
Roger Barton, whose irrigation district in the southeastern Utah town
of Ferron is taking advantage of federal subsidies to build a more
efficient sprinkling system, said that of the 300 farmers in his
district, only one relies entirely on farming to survive.
The rest have jobs on the side. ``That's still hurtful, to have to
admit I'm not a full-time farmer,'' Barton said.
In the face of this drought and the certainty of more to come, Barton
admitted farming in the desert can seem crazy.
``There's so many of us who have that passion. If only we could just
make it,'' he said. ``There's always hope for next year.''
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