Utah farmers try to adapt to drought conditions in a changing climate
Climate change is making droughts more frequent and intense. This summer, the southwestern U.S. had the worst drought on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
That has limited Utah farmers' ability to grow crops. So, in the past two years, a growing number of farmers have signed up for a state program that helps fund projects to increase their water use efficiency.
Trent Brown is one of them. One early October morning, he was standing on a wide expanse of land with cows grazing nearby. Brown is a long time rancher and farmer in Beaver County. He’s also the county assessor since farming doesn’t pay all the bills.
It’s a family tradition: His father and grandfather were ranchers and farmers and worked government jobs too. Brown said juggling both is a lot of work.
“So not not too many vacations or things like that, but you have to love it for sure,” he said. “It's hard to explain. It kind of gets in your blood.”
The drought this summer was hard on Brown. He finished the switch from growing alfalfa to grass five years ago to save water, but it wasn’t enough to overcome this summer’s drought. Brown said he only produced about a quarter of what he usually does.
“We always try to be a little bit aware of it and try to prepare for it,” he said. “But these last couple of years and this year, especially, it's been far worse than even anything we were probably prepared for. So we're trying to look even farther outside the box and into the future.”
Brown stood next to a ditch that brings water from the nearby Manderfield Reservoir to him and other farmers in the valley. He used a grant from the state’s Water Optimization Program to replace the cement in the ditch earlier this year.
“The concrete ditch was put in in the ‘60s, and it was just falling apart, failing,” he said. “We were losing a lot of water. We figure probably 20%. [Conserving water is] important all the time, but especially [with] this drought we're in and the way it looks like that we're going to continue.”
Help from the state
Utah established the Water Optimization Program in 2020. It got $3 million in state funding that year and another $3 million in 2021.
During the latest round, the program got 81 applications totaling $10.6 million — more than triple the money they had to spend, according to the program’s director Jay Olsen.
“That shows you what the need is and the increased interest that we've had in the water optimization program at the department, especially with drought conditions that we've had,” Olsen said. “There's just a need to save water.”
Olsen said that can be hard for farmers to do without some help.
“Farmers are very strapped for cash,” he said. “They have a lot of assets, but they have a real tough cash flow.”
Getting farmers to conserve could also make a big difference for the state overall. According to state data, 82% of Utah’s water is used by the agricultural industry.
The projects from the program’s first round of funding saved an estimated 8.8 billion gallons, according to Olsen. That’s about the same as the average volume of the East Canyon Reservoir in Morgan County.
He said he’s hoping the state Legislature will give the program more money in the upcoming general session that starts in mid-January.
Matt Yost is an agroclimate extension specialist at Utah State University. He works with farmers to use water more efficiently.
Water storage projects like Brown’s ditch are important, Yost said, but there’s also a lot of work to be done to change the way farmers water their crops. That can include using new equipment like drip irrigation or sprinklers instead of flooding a field.
But that new equipment can be expensive. Farmers can get grants to help pay for it, but Yost usually tries a different approach first.
“Where we start generally with a producer is a program that's free,” he said. “It's called Irrigation Scheduler.”
It’s basically a calculator that figures out the total water use of a certain crop.
“A farmer can input their field and input their soil type, and it estimates what the water use is and then what you would need to put to replace that water,” Yost said.
But Yost said data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service shows most farmers aren’t using a system like that. Instead, they’re watering based on what they see their crops doing.
“They farm the field for decades, some of them,” he said. “So they've learned what amounts of water they need and when they need it. When we do educational programs in the state, we do try to emphasize that there's probably better approaches. Because when you start to see stress in a crop, then it means that you've already lost some production. It's hard to regain that production.”
Water calculators help farmers only use how much water the crops really need and keep the plants from losing some output.
If more farmers start using water calculators, Yost said they could eventually move to even more advanced systems.
“They include using things like a soil moisture sensor that you put in the ground,” he said. “You can use weather data to help track the evapotranspiration of crops and then adjust your irrigation accordingly … Some sprinkler companies and manufacturers have developed some models that can estimate water need and then adjust the irrigation system.”
The biggest barrier is cost, Yost said, especially in the middle of a drought that’s eating into farmers’ revenue.
“The drought is not really the time to address the issue,” he said. “It's much, much better to address it before we go into a drought … That's the constant challenge that we face is when we're not in a drought, it's really hard to think about drought. When we're in the drought, we can't think about anything else.”
Trent Brown, the farmer from Beaver County, said he’s going to keep trying new things to keep his farm afloat.
“There's times it gets discouraging,” he said. “But I think it just makes you dig your heels in a little bit more, be a little bit more persistent and resilient.
You don’t really have a choice, Brown said, especially in really bad drought years like this one.