Drought, worst in history, hits Summit County ranchers

“We’ve been at this 80 years, but this one’s a little different,” one said

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.

“I’m not trying to scare anyone here, but those droughts lasted over 18 or 22 months,” Ure said of the historical precedents. “We’re going to have a hard time coming out of this drought within this next year.”

How dry is it?

Jeff Young, who manages Ensign Ranches, 60,000 acres near Echo that is one portion of a multi-ranch operation, gestured toward a creek bed with grass growing at the bottom, the green color belying the water shortage showed by the empty stream.

“This creek usually dries in August,” Young said in early July.

He said it hadn’t held water since April.

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.

“We just had no precipitation,” he said.

Grass in one pasture grew so dry and brittle it snapped off in the wind, leaving an empty field.

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. An acre-foot is the amount of water it takes to cover an acre of land with one foot of water. This year the runoff was less than 200,000 acre-feet.

“Most of that went right straight in the ground. It never reached a river to get to a reservoir,” Ure said. “Our soil moisture is so low even right now, it could rain for 40 days and 40 nights and never reach a river. Our ground is so thirsty it’ll drink it all up.”

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.

Ag challenges

Farming and ranching is an inherently risky enterprise, the ranchers said, with new situations to adjust to every year. But this drought has ratcheted up the pressure and is unlike the normal ebb and flow that comes with making a living from the land.

“Every year has its stress, but this is worse,” said Mike Brown, a dairy farmer in Hoytsville.

The Browns, like many on the East Side, have already had their irrigation water reduced.

The water rights are based on the longevity of the claim, sometimes referred to as “first in time, first in right.”

On June 20, Glen Brown said, water rights dating to 1891 were cut, taking away the Browns’ share from 1896 that supplies almost two-thirds of their irrigation water.

Instead of seven days on, seven days off, the Browns are watering for two days and eight hours per week.

“Next time we get cut, we’re done,” Glen Brown said. “That could happen tomorrow.”

The reductions happen nearly every year, Brown said, but this year they’re earlier than he remembers.

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.

“It’s not good,” Glen Brown said.

Not only is the feed more expensive, but it’s of lesser quality, Mike Brown said. That means less milk.

“Feed prices have gone up 40% and the milk price has gone down since last year,” Mike Brown said.

That could lead to the animals being sold for their meat.

“(There are a) lot of dairy cattle that’ll hit the slaughterhouses,” he said.

Young, the manager of one of the biggest ranches in the state, said there are three options for ranchers in a drought. They can liquidate their animals, move them to graze elsewhere or buy feed for them.

Each option carries financial burden.

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.

“You just have to move them so far,” Young said.

And buying feed, which all are choosing to do, often means borrowing money.

The ranchers said the drought poses an existential threat to the operations, especially if it persists into next year.

“This is serious,” Mike Brown said. “It’s not just that we don’t have green lawns anymore, it’s getting into the absolute food chain supply.”

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.

“I think this drought is going to have a lasting impact on agriculture in the West,” Young said. “A devastating impact on families and farms.”

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.

“The biggest carry-on effect for me is it’s been a catalyst for a terrific conversation about the need to really care for our water resources and to conserve them and not waste them,” Robinson said. “… Before, it was like the lone wolf crying in the wilderness. Now everyone’s talking about it.”

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.

“No one really wants to talk about how bad it might be next year as far as irrigation for crops or cattle or even their lawns,” Ure said.

Still, the ranchers said, they’re not giving in yet.

“We’re survivors,” Mike Brown said. “We’ve been at this 80 years, but this one’s a little different.”

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