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Drought Taking Aim at Box Elder County Agriculture

Drought Taking Aim at Box Elder County Agriculture

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- The five-year drought has already dried up Utah's southern farmlands and livestock herds, shriveled urban lawns and gardens, and shrunk the Great Salt Lake to the point that Antelope Island isn't an island any more.

Now it's taking aim at Utah's breadbasket, Box Elder County's $37 million agricultural industry.

As things stand, if this winter is like the last one, Box Elder farmers will get only 30 percent of their normal water allotment.

"It's uncharted territory in this part of the valley," said Charles Holmgren, president of the Bear River Canal Company and a farmer in Bear River City. "I don't know how they dealt with it in the 1930s when it got this critical."

Box Elder farmers need deep snows because Bear Lake, the reservoir of last resort for thousands of farmers in northern Utah and southern Idaho, is tapped out.

Farmers could have to cut back. Ranchers could have to reduce their herds. The Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, already seeing far fewer birds than in the past, will see even fewer.

Jack Barnett, engineer-manager of the Bear River Commission, which oversees the water of the Bear River drainage, issued the warning last week. Because of the drought, and because of meager snow runoff into Bear Lake last spring, there is "potential for significant irrigation shortages next year in highly producing farming areas in southern Idaho and Northern Utah," Barnett said in a statement. Bear Lake, he said, "has been almost totally depleted by four years of record drought."

That may seem odd to people who look at Bear Lake, which now contains 5 million-acre feet of water. The problem is that the water is all in the bottom portion of the lake which cannot be used for irrigation. At this level, Bear Lake has no natural outlet, and the water is too far below the rim of the lake to pump out.

Only water that fills the lake above 5,904 feet in elevation, which can be as much as 1.3 million acre feet when the lake is full, can be used for irrigation. Agreements with property owners around the lake also prevent more pumping.

Last week the lake was at 5,904.1 feet -- essentially empty of irrigation water. The lake hasn't been this low since the 1930s, Barnett said, and has never in recorded history dropped as fast as it has in the last three years.

Last spring the lake expected 106,000 acre-feet of runoff and only got 8,000 acre-feet -- just 2.8 percent of normal.

Lyle Holmgren, Utah State University agriculture extension agent for Box Elder County, said a lot is riding on heavy snows this winter.

"We're talking upwards of 60,000 acres of irrigated crop land serviced by the canal company," in Box Elder County, he said. "The problem that we have right now is that if weather conditions don't change and we don't get a lot of water this year, about all that we're going to get is whatever comes down the river,"

Box Elder County is the state's leading producer of total grain production, including wheat, barley, oats and corn, with Cache County second. Box Elder is also state leader in number of acres planted to wheat, barley and oats. It produces 59 percent of the state's winter wheat crop.

Holmgren said it adds up to $37 million a year for about 1,000 farms.

Charles Holmgren said he's not sure how he will manage dealing with 70 percent less water if the worst happens.

He'll have to restrict planting, plan crops that need more water early in the year, and let some land lie fallow. "I've never been there before so I don't know how to manage that small amount of water, yet," he said. "I may learn."

Larry Lewis, spokesman for the Utah State Department of Agriculture, said that in other parts of the state ranchers had to sell down their herds and farmers had to grow less. Revenues for the state's agriculture industry as a whole are down $250 million this year alone, he said. Farmers who haven't gone out of business are going into debt to keep going.

The Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge also is in trouble.

Refuge director Al Trout said the refuge has rights to water in the Bear River, but others have older rights, and "there's no such thing as a Christian in the world of water rights."

That means people with earlier rights will likely get it all, he said.

Normally there is "return flow," water that runs off of farmers' land after they irrigate and goes back to the river, but Trout said that farmers will be trying very hard to reduce that to save their crops.

That could leave the Refuge with very little.

"I guess maybe one way is in just raw numbers," Trout said. "Our bird counts the last several months have been off 70 percent or more, especially our waterfowl counts. It's just been real bleak, there's no other way to say it."

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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