Dry as dust: Drought has western Utah in choke hold
Western Utah is enduring its driest year ever.
And, while the government climate map depicting it is new, the drought itself has been a sore reality all year for Utahns from the Idaho border to the ranching town of Garrison more than midway down the state's western edge.
Brent Tanner says stockmen are bringing herds in early because of the withered mountain forage. With feed crops at three times the price of last year, many are culling their herds, some heavily.
"I am hearing ranchers say they have never seen a year like this, ever," said Tanner, a leader at the Utah Cattlemen's Association whose family has ranched near Grouse Creek in remote northwestern Utah since 1875.
Near Ibapah, the well went dry at Joycelyn Halstead's family home. Solving the problem meant adding pipe long enough to reach a sunken water table. Now their stock tanks are a nighttime watering hole for elk that quit the dusty Deep Creek Mountains and its empty streambeds.
"They were dry even early this summer," said Halstead. "There wasn't barely any water."
Farther south, on the Utah border near Baker, Nev., Denys Koyle tends a rain gauge, which logged just 2 of the normal 7 inches of precipitation Snake Valley usually sees by summer's end.
Insects and weeds were down around the Border Inn, the motel-casino-diner-convenience store complex Koyle runs astride the state line on Highway 50. But dust was up. And that recalled the choking dry clouds that shut down the highway some years back and even the Dust Bowl years, when old-timers say you could walk over barbed-wire fences on drifted dirt.
"If we don't get a winter this year, I suppose we'll have dust like that," said Koyle, who fears the underground water will dry up along with the vegetation holding together the desert floor. "Then we'd really have dust, and you'd get it all in Salt Lake."
Drought-stricken • More than a dozen months with too little snow and too little rain has meant unrelenting hardships on the people and animals that depend on this land and its water.
Of course, drought has been an issue nationally this year. Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture expanded drought emergency declarations to include 22 states.
In Utah, 23 of 29 counties had drought emergencies. And headwaters of the Weber and Provo flowed at just 10 percent of normal.
Still, statistics crunched by the National Climatic Data Center going back to 1895 show western Utah has been hardest hit the area is drier than in any 12-month period on record. Ever.
Brian McInerney, a hydrologist for the National Weather Service office in Salt Lake City, talked about a kind of perfect storm for deep drought, beginning with a dry winter, continuing with the record-hot spring and a summer dominated by high pressure.
For example, in Ibapah, the home of the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute, rain and snow averages about 9.2 inches per year. This year it's been a miserly 3.22 inches, weather service data show.
These dire conditions prompted an emergency rescue not too far from the reservation just weeks ago.
Between Ely, Nev., and the Utah line, a herd of wild horses was so shriveled that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management rounded them up and took them to safety.
"Their ribs were showing," said Gus Warr, who oversees the welfare of about 3,000 wild horses and burros gathered in 19 herds around Utah. "They would not have made it through the winter."
Like many ranchers, Warr noted things would have been a lot worse if last year hadn't been so lush. The range was fat with grass then, fed by one of the wettest, coolest springs on record.
But this year dry range has vexed Warr's office all year. During the super-hot, super-dry spring, the BLM hauled water for two months to wild burros south of Price.
Meanwhile, horse herds near Delta and Milford will be gathered up off the range for lack of overwinter forage. And because the grass never recovered even with summer monsoons, the fates of two more herds in Tooele County are being watched closely.
Raids • Other wildlife on this remote and parched landscape are also coping with the drought.
Ranchers all along the state's western edge in the drought zone tell about the elk and deer raiding their irrigated alfalfa. They talk about the odd scene of coyotes, rabbits and antelope roaming the dry valleys during the afternoon in search of something to eat or drink.
"It's like the neighbors coming into your pantry," Tanner said, "and eating all your food."
Raids like these are a sore spot with many ranchers already struggling to feed their stock, so the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources has been adding deer- and elk-hunting permits this year, said Phil Douglas, who handles outreach for the agency in northern Utah.
Meanwhile, ranchers have had to adapt, too.
Arthur Douglas, who heads the USDA's Farm Services Agency in Utah, described a year as critical as anyone can remember.
"It's as dry as they have seen it," Douglas said, noting that the routines of ranch life are now filled with odd scenes.
"You just don't see that green appearance that Mother Nature generally deals us from the spring to now. Through the summer you'd always think you'd see a little bit of moisture or the rain or somethin'. You can't see the green."
"When you see the tree chasin' the dog, it's dry," joked Douglas, who also works a century-old ranch in Howell, Box Elder County. "When you see the grasshopper carrying the canteen, it's dry."
Then, more seriously, he noted traditionally head-high crops made it just knee-high this year. And even the iconic sagebrush is so desiccated, you can kick it and see the leaves flitter to the ground.
"That's pretty dry."
At his Salt Lake City office, these conditions have Douglas fielding requests for disaster assistance from ranchers statewide.
It's too soon to tally, he said, but some report their crops are a total loss. And, with so many selling off their animals because they can't afford to feed them through the winter, their stock is selling at a loss, too.
Saved by the pump • At the 12,000-acre Baker Ranch on the Utah-Nevada line, Dean Baker and his sons consider themselves lucky despite the drought.
Most years they can count on rain and streams off the South Snake Range. It's what the Fremont Indians did hundreds of years ago when without irrigation they sprouted corn, beans and other crops enough to sustain their community in what others would regard as a no-man's land.
What saved the Bakers this year was well water that could be pumped from their aquifers nature's underground storage tanks onto alfalfa, corn, wheat and barley.
From the road to Mount Wheeler in the nearby Great Basin National Park a couple of thousand feet from the valley floor, bright green dimples mark the patches of the Snake Valley where pivot irrigation is under way, and in the mountain draws, ranches with tufts of green trees and grass sprout from the damp dirt clefts where the moisture flows into the valley.
"If you had a well," Baker said, "you could keep your alfalfa alive."
Still, they had to leave whole areas of cropland fallow to conserve. And they brought in more than 1,500 calves a month early from the summer range and started feeding them pricey hay because the forage was so thin.
Baker said the key to survival is changing with the times.
"You got to be flexible," said the 72-year-old. "You can't control Mother Nature."
One factor that's loomed large up and down the Snake Valley, from the Mormon community of Garrison to the Goshute tribal lands, is the effort by Las Vegas to tap into their aquifers.
Locals are fighting it.
Said Tom Baker, Dean's son: "Even without those [drought-related] problems, the water isn't here."
'Water grab' • At the tribal offices on the western side of the Deep Creek Mountains, the reports are similar, according to Chairman Ed Naranjo.
No snow on the peaks over winter. Dried-up streambeds. The Halsteads' well running dry.
The drought and what everyone here calls "the water grab" have made him wonder about the wisdom of pushing forward with initiatives the tribe's considered, like expanding agriculture and a small community garden that just got under way this summer.
Standing in an on-again-off-again wind ginned up by a lightning storm across the brown valley floor, he shows anemic corn grown just thigh-high and squash plants that are rangy despite the efforts of ambitious gardeners and irrigation.
"We can't do it without knowing we have the water," said Naranjo, "and with the drought, it just makes the future unsure. On top of that, they [Nevadans] want to take the water."
Even as summer was still winding down, with the ranchers determined to double down with the hand dealt them, one worry seemed to hound them all: the prospect of another snowless winter and withering spring.
That, said Snowville rancher Dave Eliason, would threaten even the best prepared. Still, ranchers are "eternal optimists," he concluded.
"It'll rain sometime; hopefully, sooner than later."
And he added: "Tell everybody to pray for rain."
What does weather look like long term?
Utah can expect a weak El NiÃ±o this winter, according to National Weather Service hydrologist Brian McInerney. And that could mean slight changes in weather patterns as southern areas get wetter and northern ones become drier.
But McInerney doesn't put much stock in long-term forecasts. And that's a message not lost on farmers and ranchers.
Even as they try to plan for contingencies after this year's drought, they must decide everything from what to plant to how many cattle to overwinter without any certainty about the climate ahead.
"It's a gamble," said Randy Julander, snow-survey supervisor for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Utah. "They roll the dice and pray."