Fact check: How much have Utah farmers cut water use?

A lot, but not by choice. Some farmers have already stopped irrigating

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rockport Reservoir drops to 39% of capacity during extreme drought conditions on Monday, July 12, 2021.

Gov. Spencer Cox recently said it was “ignorant” to suggest Utah’s farmers and ranchers cut back on their water usage as a way to conserve, claiming that they’ve already cut back dramatically.

“Nobody has done more to cut back on water usage in this state than our farmers,” Cox said. He said that farmers and ranchers have cut their water use by 70% to 75%.

Cox’s figures are in alignment with the drop in the natural water flow of four river systems that provide water rights to farmers and ranchers as reported by the Utah Division of Natural Resources.

The weekly drought update from the Utah Division of Natural Resources shows a dramatic drop in river flows this year. The most recent report available says the natural flow for water rights on the Middle Bear River is just 20%. The Upper Sevier is at 21% and the Upper Duschene system is 13%. The Upper Provo is the lowest at just 10%. If the full flow is 100%, then these numbers would indicate a dramatic cut in the water available for agriculture.

But that’s not the full story.

“This is not the farmers doing something voluntarily for the drought. They’re not voluntarily making the cuts,” said Jared Manning, the Assistant State Engineer for Utah.

During normal years, rights holders can take the full amount of water they’re entitled to. When the full allocation of water is not available because of a shortage, supply is restricted. But some rights holders are affected more severely than others.

“Water rights were curtailed at distribution meetings at the beginning of 2021 when commissioners anticipated full water rights wouldn’t be met,” said Rachel Shilton, River Basin Planning Section Manager with the Utah Division of Water Resources.

Shilton says more cuts have been implemented as drought conditions have worsened.

“Farmers and ranchers take their water allotments very seriously because it is their livelihood,” Shilton said.

Manning explained water rights get cut every year, and curtailments happen because the natural water flow is not available. Once rights holders’ allocations run out, they must turn to stored water to make up the rest. That is, if they have rights to that stored water.

“Water gets cut off every year. This year it’s more severe and it’s happening sooner,” Manning said.

When the water flow on those four systems is above 100%, it goes to storage. For example, 2019 was an unusually wet year. A June 20 report shows water flow in 2019 as high as 487% on the Upper Duschene. At the same time this year, it was just 30%. With the flows that low, there was no water to put into storage. The end result is farmers will run out of water sooner than expected this year.

Manning says some farmers might have enough water to get through the end of September, while others might only last through mid or late August.

“Some places, like Piute County, have already stopped irrigating altogether because they just don’t have the water,” Manning said.