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Dry, Drier, Driest: A bad year for water in Sanpete

 

By James Tilson and Jackson Pemberton

Staff writer

5-31-2018

 

MANTI—Sanpete County is dry. In fact, it’s drier this year than it’s been in decades. And everyone in the county will be impacted, whether it’s agriculture or an ordinary citizen looking at his brown lawn.

Last winter’s sparse snowfall means spring runoff is way below average. The first to feel the impact will be farmers and ranchers.

For farmers, less water means fewer crops and lower income. For ranchers, less water means less local grain and less pasture will be available for feed. To maintain their animals, they will have to purchase more expensive feed from out of area or reduce their herds.

A herd of sheep graze in a brown and bare field south of Spring City. With inadequate water to irrigate pastures, Sanpete ranchers must choose between higher-cost feed and fewer animals.

The shortage will eventually catch up to many average homeowner through water rationing. However, most cities have wells, springs and other sources that they hope will see their residents through the summer.

According to the Water Supply Outlook Report from the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service Office, “Snow packs have been melting fast and streamflow response has been blah (that’s another way of saying streams and rivers are water-challenged).”

As of May 1, 70 to 90 percent of the snowpack in all water basins south of Provo had come down the mountains. That means “stream flow will come early, have lower peaks, and substantially lower April-July volume,” the water outlook report says.

Zeroing in on Sanpete County, the report says Sanpitch River Basin snowpack is only 8 percent of normal this spring. Precipitation in April was 74 percent of normal, which brought projected water for the whole spring and summer season to 59 percent of average. And reservoir storage is at a spare 9 percent of capacity.

Speaking at a special water shareholder’s meeting, Lynn Anderson, president of the Cottonwood-Gooseberry Irrigation Company in the Fairview area, said the water level in Fairview Lakes is about 10 feet, the lowest in memory for this time of year.

“We will give the farmers top priority hoping they will get a first crop,” he said. “And that’s all they will get this year.”

Norman Jensen, a large farmer in the Gunnison Valley, said the Gunnison Irrigation Co. had informed its customers that its two reservoirs are at 6,500 acre/feet, far below their 23,000 acre/feet capacity.

Jensen said one water share from Gunnison Irrigation Company normally yields between 1.25 and 1.5 acre/feet per growing season. This year, the yield might only be 0.4 acre/feet per share. By comparison, in 1977 (a very bad year). a water share drew .23 acre/feet.

At usual water usage rates, Jensen expects the Gunnison Reservoir to be empty by June 10. That means there will only be one hay crop this year.

Alan Dyreng, president of the Gunnison Irrigation Company, agreed. “I expect half the normal crop and half the normal income.”

Edwin Sunderland, farmer and rancher from Chester, said the effect on the crops will extend beyond the harvest. Crop-eating insects, such as weevils and grasshoppers, are the worst they have been in a long time.

This “devastating” year has already caused him to cut back to 50 percent of his capacity, and he may go as low as 40 or 30 percent, he said.

Jensen agreed, noting that local cattle and sheep farmers will be hit by high feed costs, since there will only be one crop of hay locally.

Neil Sorensen, a cattle and sheep rancher in Spring City (as well as a city councilman), said he has cut his herd in half to deal with feed costs and lack of pasturage.

“Feed’s expensive and pasture is hard to come by,” he said. “Can’t water all the fields, and only the fields that are watered will be usable as pasture.”

For the average Sanpete resident reliant on secondary irrigation water, the most glaring effect of the water shortage will be insufficient water for lawns and landscaping.

 

A view of Nine Mile Reservoir, south of Manti. County reservoir levels the lowest since the summer of 1978.

For them, Lynn Anderson has this advice: “There will be brown lawns. Brown is beautiful.”

Mt. Pleasant City Councilman Justin Atkinson agreed. “During a drought, culinary water is a primary concern. If your lawn doesn’t get watered, that’s not a big deal.”

Sanpete communities are factoring current and potential water shortages into the immediate and long-term plans. In Fairview, Mayor David Taylor announced one of the city’s wells had failed and is out of service. A new well will have to be drilled nearby. In the meantime, watering of the city cemetery will stop after Memorial Day.

Spring City Councilman Sorensen noted that in recent years, its springs have not produced the way they used to. The city has a project underway to bring the springs back to their old capacity. The project is scheduled for completion by the end of the summer. Meanwhile, the town has back-up wells it can draw from if it needs extra water.

Atkinson noted Mt. Pleasant is also looking to improve water capacity. The city has been looking for a new well site and has an opportunity to test a site on a developer’s land just outside the city. The city has also found a possible new spring in the Pleasant Creek Canyon. With two wells and one spring, the city is not as dependent on the snowpack as some other towns.

Bryan Kimball, director of community development in Ephraim, says most residents there will not experience restrictions on water until late summer if at all. “Ephraim is fine, but we’re pretty low,” he said.

Ephraim does not have a secondary irrigation system, so residents use the same water for culinary and irrigation purposes.

Water restrictions, if required, will start with municipal usage first, such as parks, cemeteries and schools, Kimball said. He notes that 85 percent of the city’s summer water use is outdoors, so controlling that would probably eliminate the need for any culinary water restrictions.

Ephraim primarily uses spring water, with a backup well to cover shortfalls. The city has been trying to augment its water supply by drilling a new well for at least two years.

But the water shortage this year is pushing it to complete the well this year. “We’re running into a whole lotta red tape, so the realistic date is probably December,” Kimball said.

All of the farmers contacted for this article agreed that farming and weather are cyclical, and this year’s dry spell will be followed by a good year sometime in the future.

“Agriculture is always in cycles,” Norman Jensen said. “I don’t think anyone will go out of business. Just gotta ride out the cycle.”

Alan Dyreng pointed out that modern farming and irrigation methods have contributed to  much more efficient use of water than in the past.

“This year will measure to be as bad as 1978, the worst year,” he said. “But our usage is much more efficient, the fields look better, and everyone has been cooperative and helpful.

“La Nina has dominated for a few cycles, and El Nino is building,” Dyreng added. “But it is hard to tell where it (the resulting precipitation) will go. Some meteorologists say that wild weather swings will be the new norm.”

Neil Sorensen knows farming is cyclical, but he’s still a little worried. “It seems drier and drier every year,” he said. “How long can you go without re-charging the ground aquifer?”

Dyreng agreed that it will take more than one good season to make up for recurring drought over the past several years.

“Cycles are part of business,” he said. “But this has been the most extended dry period on record. It will take three to five good years to make it up.”