Utah lawmakers retooled water policy in recent years so the state could pay farmers to lease their water for the benefit of the Great Salt Lake.
The state’s leaders, policymakers and water experts say it’s one of the most flexible and fastest ways to address water shortages and debilitating drought. They even created a $40 million trust last year to help pay for leases.
The lake needs urgent action before its ecosystem completely collapses and its drying lakebed dust poisons millions of people living along the Wasatch Front.
But many farmers have expressed reluctance about participating in the new water leasing program. The Salt Lake Tribune spoke to irrigators throughout the Great Salt Lake basin to understand why.
Here’s what they told us.
Farmers are frustrated with city-dwellers blaming them for Utah’s water woes.
Drought and water shortages seem to have deepened the schism between rural and urban Utah residents. Farmers take much bigger cuts than cities when water supplies are low, even though their water rights are often older. They’re also facing increasing pressure as cities grow, converting some of the state’s best farmland into subdivisions.
“Through all this Great Salt Lake [debate], it seems like the compass is gradually pointing most of the blame at evil agriculture people,” said Dan Harris, a self-described hobby farmer in Ogden Valley. “But I got thinking, 40 years ago everything pretty much west of [Interstate 15] was farms. There were obviously more farms then than now, why didn’t the Great Salt Lake dry up then?”
Still, state-sponsored research from 2016 found agriculture had lowered the Great Salt Lake by seven feet. Municipal and industrial use lowered it by another 1.3 feet. Mineral extraction evaporative ponds on the lake lowered it by 1.4 feet.
The state has hundreds of canal companies, which complicates things.
Many if not most of the irrigation water rights in the Great Salt Lake basin are not owned by single farmers. They are owned by collective irrigation and canal companies, where the shareholder farmers must agree to let others in their system lease water to the state.
And some are not on board, concerned about the ripple effects of taking water out of their area. They worry about impacting their downstream neighbors more than getting extra money from leases.
“It’s not about the money,” said Laren Gertsch, a farmer in Heber Valley. “Shoot, if it was just about the money, the landowners would have sold their land and related water rights and we would be sitting on an island somewhere in the Caribbean.”
At least one irrigation company sees a solution.
Bear River Canal Company in Box Elder County is looking to address irrigators’ concerns by leasing water to the Great Salt Lake as a block, instead of letting individual farmers lease however many shares they want. That way, every shareholder takes the same water cut and reaps the same financial benefits from the state.
Bear River is the largest canal company in the Great Salt Lake basin, irrigating more than 65,000 acres with shares in about 275,000 acre-feet of water. Leasing a percentage of that water could help the lake, which has had a deficit of 1.2 million acre-feet in recent years.
Many of the hundreds of remaining canal companies in the basin are much smaller, and any water they could muster might only mean a blip in the context of the lake’s needs.
Irrigators want guarantees the water they lease actually makes it to the lake.
Many farmers say they would consider leasing water to the Great Salt Lake, but there is no way to prove it makes it all the way downhill instead of getting diverted by another downstream user.
“If you want to move water to the lake, that’s great, but you’ve got to move it through physical systems,” said Trevor Nielson, general manager of the Bear River Canal Company. “It takes money and it takes time.”
This year, the Utah Legislature approved a $5 million in one-time appropriation, and $449,000 in ongoing funds, to install measuring devices and meters that they say will better track water and where it is moving across the system.
To read more about farmers’ thoughts, and why state leaders remain optimistic despite irrigators’ reluctance, read our feature on the current state of water leasing for the Great Salt Lake.
State leaders aren’t worried about farmers’ reluctance
Joel Ferry, director of the Utah Division of Natural Resources, says he regularly hears from people willing to lease or donate their water. The state’s focus for now is negotiating with large irrigators and water right owners.
And those efforts appear to be paying off. The trust got its first donation Wednesday from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which permanently gave about 20,000 acre-feet worth of shares it holds in the North Point Consolidated Irrigation Co. Given the church’s immense cultural sway in Utah, it may open the door for others to participate in leasing.
This article is published through The Great Salt Lake Collaborative: A Solutions Journalism Initiative, a partnership of news, education and media organizations that aims to inform readers about the Great Salt Lake.