Stanford J. Layton: Check the facts before blaming alfalfa farmers

Tribune articles are too quick to take water away from upstream farmers.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Alfalfa fields in Mt. Carmel on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022.

The December 4 Salt Lake Tribune opinion section gave Utah farmers an awful paddling in a tandem of articles. The first was by-lined The Tribune Editorial Board. The second came from Eric C. Ewert, a geography professor at Weber State University. Both presented the thesis that the Great Salt Lake is in trouble and Utah’s alfalfa farmers are to blame. Each issued a doomsday warning, and each advanced the same conclusion: The farmers have got to go.

Much of the Tribune’s essay is insightful and well reasoned. It is right on target in noting that the number of Utah farms is diminishing and will continue to do so under “the invisible hand of the marketplace.” When the narrative turns to the matter of pricing farm water, however, it starts to wobble.

Up pops the old myth that farmers get their water free. We are told that “farmers buy shares in canal companies but do not pay for it by the gallon or the acre-foot.” That is an odd statement – and untrue. It is like saying you didn’t really buy that tank of gas because you used a debit card at the pump.

In the case at hand, shares are the currency and water is the merchandise. In the Davis and Weber Counties Canal Company, for example, shares buy an exact number of acre-feet. That number has varied between three and six in recent years, being set each spring following a survey of reservoir storage and stream flow.

A typical farm in the Davis-Weber area is likely to need 20-30 shares of water. The going price right now is $50,000 per share. Do the math and see seven figures. On top of that, share holders are assessed a per-share fee each year for operating expenses, and that can reach four or five figures. Make no mistake: Farmers pay plenty for their water.

The writer is bothered by the apparent lack of metering at the farm. He doesn’t seem to understand that the water is indeed metered, but upstream. It is done at the top of the company ditch as the canal company releases it. Flowing at a steady volume, the water is then delivered to the various users by turns. Each turn has an exact start time and an exact end time. It is an efficient and equitable system.

The writer proposes using state money to buy water rights from farmers upstream. Here we see another myth — that water and land can be separated. Few farmers would consider selling their water without also selling their land. In the semi-arid West, farmland without water is worthless. Will the state be willing to buy farms in order to divest their water and send it down stream to the lake? I doubt it. Surely the cost would be prohibitive

Professor Ewert’s doomsday sketch projects a “bleakly dry, birdless, and toxic dust burdened future.” His panacea is stated in three words: stop growing alfalfa. He relies on “simple math” to make his case. Identifying the total acreage of Utah alfalfa crop as 730,000 acres, he then multiplies by 2.12 which is what the agronomists say is the number of acre-feet required to service an acre of alfalfa. The result is “the staggering number of nearly 1.5 million acre-feet of water to grow alfalfa or hay per year.” He then computes the number of acre-feet of water needed to replenish the Great Salt Lake and concludes that ending alfalfa irrigation would fill the lake in just five years.

The fallacy here is the assumption that all 730,000 acres lie within the Salt Lake watershed. This is a serious oversight. The USDA Census of Agriculture (2017) reveals that the 12 counties which drain into the lake contain just slightly over 250,000 acres of alfalfa. That is only one-third the amount asserted by Professor Ewert. Five years suddenly become 15 years.

Professor Ewert ends his commentary with a call to “transition hay and alfalfa farmers to some other livelihood.” He makes clear his intention that this be done with monetary compensation. My suspicion is that most farmers will not want to be “transitioned” at any price. I suspect further that regardless of the money, they will consider the very proposal to be elitist and authoritarian. As a matter of social-political tradition, we Americans are not keen on transitioning specific segments of society.

Neither article addresses our 20-year drought as a factor in the lake’s deterioration. If those years had given us normal precipitation, the lake may well be normal as well. Our new water year is off to a promising start. The experts tell us not to expect a quick turn-around, but we all know weather patterns are ever-changing. Our political leaders are studying the problem, and as individuals we can continue our own conservation practices.

We have time to give the climatic ebb and flow a chance to reach equilibrium again as it has so many times in the past. There is no need to reach for draconian measures just yet.

Stanford J. Layton

Stanford J. Layton, Ph.D., retired from the Weber State University history department faculty in 2013. He presently runs his 70-acre farm in Layton where he has 22 acres planted in alfalfa.