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Health, Science & Environment

Drought Emergency Nothing New For Utah Farmers, But State Officials Hope The Message Reaches Public.

A photo of a tractor on Bunker Farms.
Brett Bunker
/
Brett Bunker
Bunker Farms in Delta grows alfalfa, corn and wheat — all water-heavy crops. But their water supply is down around 30% this year.

Droughts are nothing new to Brett Bunker, owner of Bunker Farms in Delta. They grow alfalfa, corn and wheat — all water-heavy crops.

“It’s gotten worse for the last four to five years,” Bunker said. “It hasn’t been as extreme as this year, but we have been in a drought. We’re just learning how to cope with it.”

He said his water supply is down more than 30% this year. It’s not clear yet exactly how that will impact his operation, but it could mean limiting what he grows.

“We cut back on acres,” he said. “I might not grow as much corn because it is more water intensive than anything else. So there’s a lot of management that we have to do to make it work.”

A map of drought conditions in the U.S.
Drought conditions as of March 18, 2021.

Seventy percent of the state is considered in “exceptional drought” right now, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Over 90% is in the slightly better, but still alarming “extreme drought” category. Statewide reservoir storage is currently at 67% of capacity — down 14% from the year before — and current soil moisture is also at the lowest levels since monitoring began in 2006.

The conditions prompted Gov. Spencer Cox to issue an executive order Wednesday declaring a state of emergency. It’s the second time that’s happened in the last three years, though conditions are dryer this time around.

Bunker said Thursday he hadn’t heard about the governor’s emergency order, but depending on how severe the impacts are, it could mean he’s eligible for some additional funding to help keep his business afloat.

Laura Haskell, drought coordinator and water engineer with the Utah Division of Water Resources, said one of the main reasons for declaring a public emergency is to tap into several pools of state and federal funding. Farmers and ranchers hurt by the drought are eligible to apply, but the money can also go to things like wildfire fighting and tourism.

But just as important, she said, the order is also an alert to the public. She said while 2019 was a good year for snow, helping to fill the state’s reservoirs, Utahns were tapping into it more with warmer weather over the summer.

“Our water use was much higher than average because of how hot and dry it was,” she said, adding that hotter temperatures also caused more water to evaporate. “We're not going to be in a horrible situation. We have water in most reservoirs, especially the larger ones. But we need to be cautious and have it last as long as possible.”

She said it’s impossible to tell exactly how long the drought will last, though some predictions forecast the trend to continue and worsen over time. April, May and June are shaping up to be dryer than usual for a large portion of the country, threatening water cutoffs in some areas and increased risk of wildfire. Climate change also increases the odds that the world will see more extreme weather, with hotter temperatures and worsening drought, particularly in the southwest U.S.

To start conserving water, Haskell recommended people limit outdoor landscaping because of how significant the savings can be and because it’s not an essential use. Other suggestions include fixing leaks, turning off water while brushing teeth or doing dishes and reducing showers by at least one minute.

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