Evanston, Wyoming • Adrian Hunolt and his family run a cattle ranch on 8,500 acres along a bend in the Bear River, just a few miles from its headwaters in the Uinta Mountains.
The river is the imperiled Great Salt Lake’s largest and most important tributary, and Hunolt says he feels a connection to both.
“We are contributing,” Hunolt said. “We are part of the watershed.”
The Bear has a long journey as it travels from Hunolt’s land to its outlet in Utah’s inland sea. It weaves around the Wyoming-Utah border before crossing north into Idaho. There, it’s moved out of its natural channel, dumped into Bear Lake, then pumped out of the lake back to its normal course. It then arcs south back to Utah, and ultimately flows to the Great Salt Lake. The river runs more than 500 miles – it’s the largest stream in North America with no outlet to an ocean. But as the crow flies, the Great Salt Lake is only about 90 miles from where Hunolt stands.
“We get all kinds of cool, funky birds that come through here in the spring,” on their way to the lake, he said.
He’s also starting to experience the effects of the drying of the Great Salt Lake. It has shrunk to unprecedented levels, spurring an ecological collapse. A vast area of the lakebed now sits exposed, drying by the day into a toxic public health threat.
“We get the dust storms up here, we’re breathing that dust,” Hunolt said. “We come out in the morning and our vehicles will get that white ash-looking stuff that blows off the Great Salt Lake. So that’s very direct.”
Utah lawmakers are pouring millions of dollars into efficient irrigation to help free up more water for the Great Salt Lake and adapt to the region’s aridification. But flood irrigation is alive and well on the Bear River, including at the Hunolt ranch.
And while it might seem contradictory, some scientists say it’s to the benefit of the environment and vast food web the Great Salt Lake supports.
“There’s some areas where traditional agricultural practices are really important to sustain,” said Erica Hansen, a science to implementation specialist with the Intermountain West Joint Venture, “because they’re actually maintaining ecosystem function.”
A wetland system at risk
Flood irrigation is one of the oldest and simplest forms of agriculture — farmers open their ditch gates and let gravity do most of the work.
Hunolt begins flood irrigating in late spring. By June, he said the landscape is green and completely saturated with water.
“We joke around, it’s like a rice paddy,” he said. “We flood everything as much as we can.”
The rancher said he relies on flood irrigation because, in his location high in the Bear River watershed, the growing season is short — around 60 days in a good year.
“The expense of anything else sprinkler-wise,” he said, “just doesn’t make sense.”
But in his location on the Bear River, Hunolt’s method of irrigating has its benefits. It recreates what would have once been a natural wetland-soaked landscape, probably bolstered by beaver dams, that supports a variety of wildlife.
And wetlands are rare in the dry West, accounting for less than 3% of the landscape, according to joint venture research. And they’re increasingly under threat from climate change, aridification and human water consumption.
In 2020, joint venture scientists helped author a study that looked at terminal lake systems in the Great Basin and Mexico that provide vital staging grounds for migrating birds. The research found that saline lakes in the Western U.S. — including the Great Salt Lake in Utah and Mono and Owens lakes in California — have lost a combined 27% of their surface area since the 1980s. The wetlands these terminal watersheds support have taken an even bigger hit, losing 47% of their surface water.
Flood irrigation matters in certain areas of the arid West because it mimics and helps sustain wetlands that once existed before settlers moved in and began parceling off the landscape into farms, ranches and cities.
“They sort of structure how people and wildlife use the Western United States,” Hansen said, “because everyone needs water.”
Researchers who study flood irrigation acknowledge advocating for its preservation might seem counterintuitive, especially in an environmental context. Agriculture is one of the main drivers of water scarcity in the West. It uses around 63% of the water that would otherwise flow to the Great Salt Lake.
But flooding can help keep water on the landscape in certain places and provide vital habitat, although it doesn’t make sense everywhere.
The 2020 study reported just 7% of irrigated lands in the Great Basin supported 61% of its wetlands.
Farms near river bottoms and on historic flood plains, where wetlands would have naturally occurred, are key.
An alfalfa farm that’s high on a bench or an orchard in the foothills, however, wouldn’t provide the same wetland value.
“We’re going to have to make some really hard decisions about where we put water, who gets it and when” as climate change warms and dries the West, Hansen said. “One of the things we can do is look for areas where there are win-wins between people and wildlife.”
Agriculture sustains people and birds
The Great Salt Lake supports more than 10 million birds that migrate across the Pacific flyway each year, but many of those birds depend on wetlands scattered across the Bear River watershed, too. Hunolt said he regularly sees charismatic avian visitors like sandhill cranes, curlews, ducks and geese.
“I don’t know much about birds,” he said, “but they seem to get thicker all the time.”
Wild flood irrigation supports similar wildlife habitat across the Bear River watershed. White-faced ibis, with their rainbow-colored plumage and elegant curving beaks, build floating nests in deep wetlands to protect their chicks from predators. They also wade across shallow wetlands to feed.
“We need these systems to be sustained in order to sustain that population,” Hansen said. “Animals don’t just stop at the refuge boundaries.”
Around 88% of the ibis colonies they studied across the West relied on flood-irrigated farms.
Farther downstream, researchers also found sandhill cranes are dependent on the intermittent wetlands created by flood irrigating on the Bear River near Malad, Idaho.
“Temporary and seasonal wetlands in the spring are the primary thing that cranes seek out when they’re migrating,” Hansen said. “[And] associated grain fields provide them food, so those agricultural complexes are really important.”
And the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has noted the irrigated meadows near Evanston, where Hunolt runs his ranch, support some of the most robust nesting habitats for waterfowl in Wyoming.
“It’s really just a wonderful marriage of agricultural production,” said Dave Kimble, a USFWS biologist based in Wyoming “and wildlife habitat.”
He compared the farm wetlands to a sponge, which slowly releases water back to the system as temperatures warm and the river drops.
“Sometimes water we might call ‘inefficient,’” Kimble said, “... is going to get used again and again.”
The efficiency paradox
Utah, meanwhile, is investing heavily in phasing out inefficient watering practices like flood irrigation in an effort to boost dwindling water supplies.
Lawmakers first earmarked about $6 million in 2019 for a statewide Water Optimization Program, which helps farmers transition to systems like pivot sprinklers and drip irrigation. They boosted that funding to $70 million this year thanks to a surge of federal dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA.
State leaders often tout the program as a solution to getting more water to the Great Salt Lake.
“That was their expectation with this money,” said Jim Bowcutt, conservation director with the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, “to hopefully conserve water with the Great Salt Lake in mind.”
But research has found that more efficient irrigation doesn’t necessarily free up more water for the benefit of the environment or municipal use. Oftentimes, farmers use saved water to grow more produce, or plant more water-intensive crops. It’s a concept researchers call the “efficiency paradox.”
“Because you’re able to use water more efficiently,” Hansen explained, “you actually end up using more.”
Farmers applying for water optimization funds in Utah, however, will need to install meters and document they’re using less, Bowcutt said.
“There’s not a lot of metering when it comes to irrigation. That’s another big win for this program,” Bowcutt said. “There’s been a lot of false assumptions about how much they’re diverting.”
Those who want to continue flood irrigating can still use state funds to improve other parts of their system, he added, like putting open ditches into pipes, which reduces the amount of water lost to evaporation.
But Hansen, with the joint venture, said there’s some concern that the push for irrigation efficiency means wild flood irrigation projects and the wetland habitat they create sometimes “get lost in the wash.”
“It’s hard because these systems are really complex,” Hansen said, “and only now are we really getting the information where we can actually look at the system as a whole.”
By the end of the summer, and even as late as October, Hunolt said he watches the water across his ranch percolate out of the soil and trickle down to the Bear River, to be used by someone else downstream.
“I would like to make the case to the people on the Wasatch Front,” Hunolt said, “that I’m doing you more good than harm. By storing water up here, keeping this green, you’ve got water later in the year.”
Farmers like him, he added, “really have the river’s best intentions at heart.”
Editor’s note: The reporting trip for this story was organized by the Intermountain West Joint Venture and funded by the Great Salt Lake Collaborative. Joint ventures are run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NGO partners to conserve bird habitat. The Great Salt Lake Collaborative is a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake — and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late. Read more stories at greatsaltlakenews.org.