by Emma Penrod
The federal government has included Tooele County in a broad drought disaster area well in advance of what experts anticipate will be a tough year for farmers and ranchers.
Those designations make low-interest loans available to agricultural producers working in designated counties or counties adjacent to designated counties. Loans can be used, for example, to buy feed for herds if plant growth on the range is scarce.On Jan. 8, the U.S. Department of Agriculture designated drought-related crises in more than 1,200 counties nation-wide, with the bulk of the disaster zone centered in the west.
This is not the first time drought has landed federally-backed disaster assistance for Tooele County. But Leland Hogan, a local rancher and the president of the Utah Farm Bureau, said it’s unusual for the USDA to declare a drought-related disaster before the start of the growing season.
“We could have qualified last year, but they decided it was too late in the season,” he said.
However, at this point, entering a third year of drought seems all but assured, Hogan said. The problem is less due to this year’s precipitation — which, although below normal, doesn’t suggest dire circumstances all on its own — but rather is a result of two years’ worth of cumulative dryness.
Local water stores are substantially below normal, and this winter’s almost-normal snowpack likely won’t make up the difference, according to state forecasters.
“People who depend on reservoirs — they’re not going to be able to deliver the water they usually do,” Hogan said.
Additionally, because local soil dried out last year, it will take more water than normal to rehabilitate fields and get crops started this spring, he said. Consequently, producers will have to make some tough decisions early in the season.
“You will have to determine what crops you’re going to plant, and what you’re not,” said Hogan. “You’ll have to consider what you’re going to be able to water.”
He added the drought isn’t as likely to affect residents, who rely on city culinary water, rather than irrigation water. Water rights for culinary water are well-protected and prioritized above other water uses, he explained. However, he predicted that this season might bring restrictions for those residents who use irrigation water for their lawns and gardens.
“It’s easier to throttle back on usage for watering lawns,” said Hogan. “But when you’re growing crops — if you don’t water the crops, the crops don’t grow. You can do without your grass, but not without food.”
Because the drought is so wide-spread, Hogan also predicted that consumers will see higher commodity prices this year. Locally, the price of alfalfa hay will be most directly impacted.
Locals can find more information about the drought and available financial assistance from the USDA at usda.gov or by contacting the Utah Farm Service Agency at 801-524-4530.