From The Park Record (Alexander Cramer):
The images that define this drought are etched into the creek beds and hillsides of Summit County, their importance drawn out by experienced eyes that know how the land should look.
For one Summit County rancher whose operations cover vast swaths near Wyoming, the emblem might be the bare creek that’s never run dry this early, or the grass last year that grew so dry and brittle it blew away with the wind.
For a dairyman in Hoytsville, it might be the yellowing field that’s next to a still-green one, the result of hard choices after irrigation water was cut off earlier than in memory.
For a South Summit rancher and water official, it might be the hay they’re harvesting at almost half the yield of what it should be, or the low reservoirs that just keep emptying.
That official, Dave Ure, speaking just after a tour of waterworks facilities in Summit County, put the situation in stark terms.
“We are in the worst drought in the state of Utah’s history right now, and the only thing compared to it is the droughts back in 1895 and 1933,” Ure said.
The Ures have been in South Summit for 135 years. Dave Ure is a former politician and current trustee of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, which oversees many of the water sources in Summit County.
Ure said water will still flow from household taps, contending that the situation isn’t close to threatening culinary water, at least for those who are connected to a larger municipal system. Water will be diverted from agriculture users long before that happens, Ure said.
But that doesn’t mean the impacts will be confined to farmers and ranchers. Food prices can be expected to go up, Ure said, and wildfire risk will likely remain elevated. The drought might change the landscape itself, possibly hastening a trend of developing farmland into subdivisions.
Those impacts remain on the horizon, for now, but the impacts on farmers and ranchers are already here…
[Jeff] Young traced the current shortages to last summer. He said the 2019-2020 winter provided good water, but that it stopped raining in June and didn’t start snowing until November. A summer and fall without water was something he hadn’t seen before…
The dryness persisted into the winter, and even though there was a below-average snowpack, the season total was not devastating. But the drought was waiting underneath, with soils as dry as had ever been measured.
Ure said there is normally about 500,000 acre-feet of runoff water in the entire Weber Basin catchment area…
Young said the higher-elevation springs on the ranch are still producing, but that the lower areas are bone dry. He said the drought was already beginning to affect the underground aquifers.
Earlier this season, he went to the creek to fix what he thought was a problem with the water-capturing infrastructure.
“I was naive. I thought I had to fix the diversion, but there was nothing to get,” he said…
The Browns have water stored in a reservoir dug by their ancestors in 1883. But that reservoir was down significantly this year, and once that water is used, their fields will no longer be irrigated.
They won’t be able to grow as much feed for their cattle as they normally can, meaning they’ll have to buy it.
Hay prices have skyrocketed, they said, driven up by the lack of supply as well as the number of people who are in the market for feed.
Mike Brown flipped his phone over and showed a social media post from a friend asking if anyone had hay for sale…
With the drought forcing ranchers across the region to sell off portions of their herds, animals don’t fetch the same prices they once did.
All three said they had or were planning to sell significant portions of their stock.
Mike Brown said he has to call days ahead to reserve an appointment to send animals to slaughter. The packing plants are full, he said.
Liquidating the stock might get the ranchers out of debt, but it might not raise enough capital to restart a ranching or farming operation after the drought passes.
Moving the animals comes with transportation costs and the added challenge of finding areas unaffected by the drought, which stretches across much of the West…
Challenges to come
There aren’t many small ranching operations left in Summit County, Ure and others said, and this drought might just drive them out.
Young said it would likely change who’s in the ranching business, possibly opening the door to larger agriculture operations.
Ranchers could also opt to sell to housing developers…
Farmland that may have been profitable might not be so now, and the real estate market is red hot. Ure said he’d heard of several recent transactions in the Kamas area in which land sold for “outrageous prices.”
Summit County Councilor Chris Robinson, who owns or co-owns hundreds of thousands of acres in Utah and elsewhere, including Ensign Ranches, said one silver lining of what he called the “megadrought” is that it’s putting the appropriate level of scrutiny on water use…
Ure predicted that over the course of the summer, governments would start announcing water-conservation regulations. Some options include reducing the amount of grass installed in new development and incentivizing a switch to drought-resistant landscaping.
Young, Ure and Mike and Glen Brown agreed that if the drought persisted into next year, it would compound the problem to perhaps unmanageable levels.