Utah water users — from farms to small businesses — prep for more drought

The state has become warmer and drier since 2019.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pineview Reservoir was far below full all of last year.

St. George • Sam McMurdie drove over 350 miles from his family ranch — CH McMurdie Ranch, LLC — in northern Utah to the Mojave Desert to learn more about water use and the forecasts of moisture in the state at the 2022 Utah Water Users Workshop.

He hoped to learn about the forecast for rain, and if the drought would require him to scale back his farming operations in the next year. “We’re really concerned about water,” McMurdie told The Tribune. “It takes a lot of water to produce food.”

McMurdie was one of more than 800 attendees of the two-day workshop that focused on water for the groups that use the Utah Water Users Association. Along with the state’s water conservation districts, the water association includes farmers like McMurdie, elected leaders, small businesses, scientists, engineers, lawyers and developers.

The state has become warmer and drier since 2019, Glen Merrill, hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City, said to open the conference.

Jordan Clayton, snow survey supervisor for the National Conservation District in Utah, said the state had a roller coaster winter that is ending dry. Utah will need a wet spring to get back to a healthy average.

Over the last two years, Utah has experienced a 13-inch deficit in its annual precipitation, which is about 40% of the state averages, Clayton said.

McMurdie’s farm is using cover crops, like clovers, to help keep the soil healthy by keeping the water in the ground instead of allowing it to run off.

“My family is kind of the guinea pigs for the state to experiment with cover crops, which preserve water,” McMurdie said.

At a panel with Utah state lawmakers, McMurdie asked Rep. Joel Ferry, R-Brigham City, Rep. Dave Hinkins, R-Ferron, and Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, what they cared most more about as state leaders: the Great Salt Lake, city water use or water for food.

None of the lawmakers could answer his question in part because at the Legislature water is important for all Utahns.

Ferry told a full auditorium that the state Legislature had appropriated over $500 million toward water conservation and development mostly from American Rescue Plan Act funds. The water spending includes $30 million for Utah Lake, $70 million for agriculture to allow farmers to reduce water usage through improved water irrigation projects and $250 million for secondary water metering, Ferry said.

In southern Utah water rights for farms are being lost to developers.

“The amount of agriculture that’s occurring in this county is just decreasing every year and there’s a lot of reasons for it, but generally, what’s happening is the farmers are selling their land to developers,” said Zach Renstrom, general manager for the Washington County Water Conservancy District.

Utah State Engineer Teresa Wilhelmsen said that the state has experienced an increased number of water rights applications in 2021, with Iron County having the most with 322 applications asking for changes to its water allocation use. The increase in applications is from growth and people moving to rural corners of the state, she said.

Wilhelmsen said water users need to learn and understand water rights and how water gets distributed, especially in a time of drought. The Great Salt Lake, Lake Powell, and Lake Mead, for example, are at historic lows.

The Virgin River, the sole drinking water source in Washington County, has been fully allocated for use, added Renstrom.

Renstrom said that unlike the strategy for saving water in the north, southern Utah is focusing on reuse water efforts through metering untreated water.

“We can’t create new water. We can’t ask for new water. We really have to just go in and change what we are using our current water for,” the water manager said.