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All Utah counties have been declared drought stricken for the second year as farmers and ranchers battle parched ranges and damaged crops.
And if 60 years of record keeping hold true, extremely dry weather likely will plague the West for the next decade.
"In two or three years, we could be heading into another wet period, however brief," said Shih-Yu "Simon" Wang, assistant director at the Utah Climate Center. "But we're still in the trough of the drought cycle."
Climatologists are not optimistic, even though 43 percent of the state is experiencing severe to extreme drought, compared to nearly 73 percent last year. Nature dealt blessings and disasters last year, when welcoming rains filled reservoirs but damaged alfalfa, the state's No. 1 cash crop.
Now, farmers and ranchers are bracing for even worse conditions because reservoirs are much lower, leading to less irrigation water for crops and feed next spring, driving prices higher.
"The lack of water is our No. 1 concern, and I'm fearful it could get worse," said Arthur Douglas, executive director of Utah's Farm Service Agency. "No part of the state or the West is escaping this."
Leland Hogan, president of the Utah Farm Bureau and a Tooele County rancher, said the drought is much worse this year for growers and ranchers.
"Some people have run out of water as early as June," he said. "Anyone who relies on surface water from reservoirs or streams is in tough shape. They've had to cut back on what they can grow. The high ranges (for grazing) were not too bad early on but there hasn't been any rain to keep the regrowth coming."
Longtime drought conditions have pushed Utah counties considered vulnerable or at risk last year into full-fledged disaster areas.
Twenty-five Utah counties are deemed disaster areas, compared to 16 counties last year. Now, nine at-risk counties have fallen into disaster status, including Beaver, Davis, Garfield, Iron, Kane, Piute, Salt Lake, Wayne and Weber.
Only Cache, Morgan, Rich and Wasatch counties are considered vulnerable, but they're so stressed that they also are eligible for low-cost loans and other relief. This includes $16 million in federal financial and technical assistance to help crop and livestock producers cope with drought and another $14 million that can be used to help move water to livestock and providing emergency forage.
The monsoon season, which began in July, has brought some respite.
Rains improved perennial grasses on rangelands in Sevier County, although annual grasses are poor quality, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service's August report.
The rains came too late for San Juan County grower Blaine Nebeker, who compares his current crop to last year's disastrous harvest.
"We started getting some rain about two weeks ago and it's feeling good," Nebeker said. "But it's too late for our wheat and safflower crops, which will be half of what it was last year, and that wasn't a good year, either. We're hoping for some snowpack so we can get some moisture for our winter wheat. That's about where most of our water comes from."
Statewide, 35 percent of the state's irrigation water is considered adequate, with the remaining supplies listed as short or very short. In addition, more than 70 percent of the topsoil has short or very short moisture content and 28 percent of topsoil conditions are considered adequate.
In Box Elder County, producers reported dry conditions and lack of stream flows has limited hay production, according to the farm report. Producers are baling straw, which is low in nutrients, in anticipation of limited feed supplies this winter. In Cache County, dry conditions, dust and flies are aggravating the disease pinkeye infecting some cattle.
Across the state, ranchers likely will move cattle off summer pastures earlier this year, forcing them to buy feed earlier.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has stepped in, opening lands enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to keep acres idle. In addition, the federal agency has lowered rental payments on lands used for emergency haying or grazing from 25 percent to 10 percent, and extended the grazing period through November.
"This has helped us a lot otherwise, it wouldn't be feasible for us to graze our cattle," said Monticello rancher David Robinson. "Everything here is totally brown. It's very difficult to survive one drought, and now we're going through two."
Drought grips Utah
The feds have declared all 29 counties at risk or disaster areas.
Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture