With extreme drought conditions sweeping across Utah, all citizens of this state have been asked to take major measures this year to help maintain our limited water supply.
Simple things like taking short showers, installing water-efficient appliances and systems, and limiting the watering of our lawns are just a few examples of what we’ve been told to “slow down the flow.” However, every time a new plea for water conservation is issued, a wave of criticism from farmers and ranchers and their water use methods follows right back.
While it is true that agricultural water use makes up the majority of Utah’s water use, there are many things about agricultural water use that are unknown to the general public, including the many benefits it provides to Utah’s natural resources. Here are some facts to consider:
- There are natural restrictions in agricultural water use during the winter months based on regional rainfall, soil moisture and the amount of water runoff available from rainfall. Once the water is gone, there is no irrigation water left for the fields.
- Farmers and ranchers are limited in what water rights they have or are available to them. They don’t have unlimited access to whatever water they want or need.
- Water used for agricultural purposes is secondary, meaning it is untreated, unfiltered water that cannot be used for drinking or everyday human use.
- Projects that bring water to Utah’s deserts and wildlife also help sustain the wildlife in those areas year-round.
- Flood irrigation helps to maintain the water level in domestic and municipal wells by recharging the aquifers.
- Farmers and ranchers continually work towards adopting more efficient water systems. Upgrading irrigation systems has helped many people to increase their water efficiency and become water efficient up to 90%.
- The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food is helping farmers implement more efficient irrigation systems through our Water Optimization Program. In the first year of the projects, Utah farmers saved 27,910 acre-feet of water—that is, about 9.1 billion gallons of water!
- Most importantly, the water used in agriculture provides us with food and fiber that nourishes all of us. As we have found over the past year and a half, the importance of local food security cannot be underestimated. Local agriculture is the key to local food security.
So why should you care? Farmers and ranchers in Utah have already experienced water cuts of 70-75% over the past year. This means that the sowing of crops has been cut off and the yield of the crop will be limited. These limited crops will have an impact on all of us.
Currently, the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food is monitoring the effects of a grass shortage in our state and nation. Farmers and ranchers have limited access to grazing areas and pastures because there is not enough moisture to grow hay and hay is in short supply.
Grass crop yields have been halved in most areas, and by 75–90% in southern Utah, major grass shortages are projected across the state. Many farmers and pastoralists will not be able to feed their animals in the coming months and will be forced to sell them out of state. This will affect meat prices in the coming years as farmers and ranchers will take years to rebuild their herds and consequently their communities will suffer. Each cow sold represents a loss of $555 to the local economy. This hurts everyone.
Everything in this world has a point of origin, and for our food supply, it is the original farmers and pastoralists who produce our food. Without them, our food security would be reduced. The Utah products we all love, like grass-fed beef, world-class dairy, sweet corn, and more, will be put at risk.
Farmers and ranchers need our support now more than ever. We all need to understand before trying to understand; Try to understand why farms and ranches use their water and consider the value their work brings to our daily lives.
As we all work towards improving our conservation efforts, let’s look at what is important in times of crisis and provide support to those who need it most. Farmers and ranchers are providing food and fiber for all of us as well as taking advantage of Utah’s natural resources.
Let us come together as the Utans do the best they can and work to overcome this devastating drought.
Craig Butters is the commissioner of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food.