The way things are looking right now, prices will go up. Prices will go up on beef next year, and corn and soybeans are already up. —John Hilton, director of the National Agricultural Statistics Service's Utah Field Office
SALT LAKE CITY — The unrelenting, unforgiving drought this summer is providing a flood of information about crop damage, record-breaking temperatures and huge sections of the United States withering under cloudless skies.
And a lot of it is confusing and seemingly contradictory. Headlines blaze one day that crops are decimated, but the next day the local news declares that Utah farmers' markets are enjoying a bumper crop this season.
Forecasters and water managers bemoan the dry, hot spells, and in the next instant, a sudden thunderstorm leads to flooding. Is it dry and is there too little water, and should one wish for rain or wish it away?
Here are a few key things to know about the drought of 2012:
How bad is it really?
It's bad. All of Utah's 29 counties are on the drought disaster list, with 45 percent of the state's rangeland rated as "poor" or "very poor" in terms of vegetation.
Nearly 62 percent of the contiguous United States, in fact, is drought-designated, and that is a number that has dipped since late July, thanks to some storms that moved through other parts of the country.
When more than 50 percent of the country was declared drought-stricken in July, it was the largest area in the country under siege to those conditions since 1956 — hence "the worst drought in more than 50 years," declared in headlines across the United States and elsewhere in the word.
As it stands now, 71 percent of the U.S. cattle inventory, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is in drought-impacted areas, while 72 percent of the nation's soybean production and 73 percent of its corn production are suffering the effects of drought.
Brian McInerney, hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City, said the dry and hot conditions are the worst since the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s, playing out in parched fields, dried-up streams and lands ravaged by wildfires throughout the West.
The National Climatic Data Center, the world's largest active record keeper of all things weather, doesn't predict that things will get better any time soon for much of the country, with warmer, drier than normal weather patterns continuing to dominate well into the fall.
How hot is it really?
That national data gathering center on weather reported that July was the hottest month on record, period, in the United States, and globally those searing temperatures were duplicated in several other countries.
But going back 12 months in the United States, it was the hottest ever, according to the record keepers, and records were shattering nonstop. In 32 states, July temperatures were among the top 10 on record.
Salt Lake City International Airport was already logging abnormally high temperatures back in late April, when a 78-year-old record was shattered with a daytime high of 88. This month, it has been about 4 degrees higher than normal, and August is already a typically hot month.
Will the drought drive up the cost of food?
Yes and no. Some early Utah-grown crops, like fruit and other produce, in areas along the Wasatch Front where there is reservoir-stored water available have been doing fine, according to the Utah Farm Bureau.
The prices of those goods should see little fluctuation. Beef may actually decrease a little bit because a record number of cattle are hitting the market due to lack of feed.
"Ranches are getting rid of the herds," said John Hilton, director of the National Agricultural Statistics Service's Utah Field Office.
The real impacts, Hilton and other officials warned, will be felt in the next year or so.
"The way things are looking right now, prices will go up," Hilton said. "Prices will go up on beef next year, and corn and soybeans are already up."
Those feed staples for livestock, such as cattle and hogs, and for chickens will be in short supply or expensively priced — and rangeland, which is the cheapest alternative for the livestock, is practically wiped out because of the drought.
Utah Farm Bureau President Leland Hogan said the 2012 drought is wreaking havoc with the production cycle of farms and ranches all over the country.
Calves that are normally weaned in the fall are being weaned now to put less stress on their mothers and because of the lack of pastureland. Those calves in turn will have to live off hay and mature in feed lots — and that costs a lot more money.
"The drought is interrupting the whole cycle of marketing for everyone," Hogan said. "Everything has become disrupted."
While the USDA has figures that show only 14 percent of a food's retail price is linked to the commodity itself, such as beef or pork, and 86 percent comes from packaging, processing or transportation/energy costs, Hogan said everything — especially the movement of markets — has been upended due to drought.
"As people try to cope with this, it will take more transportation, more time involved in actually bringing the animals to market," he said.
If it is more expensive to feed the animals before they are brought to slaughter, it will be more expensive at the checkout stand.
How is the drought impacting Utah water supplies?
Again, it depends on who you ask. Households, ranchers and farmers who are using reservoir-stored water are doing OK, because reservoir storage is on average still at 71 percent across the state.
But those reservoirs and lakes are dropping fast. Bear Lake, which rose 11 feet in that record-setting wet year of 2011, has come down 4 feet already this year, according to Carly Burton, executive director of the Utah Water Users Association. Lake Powell, he added, has dropped about 35 feet.
"All that huge recovery we made last year is going down the drain, so to speak," Burton said.
Water users out there in scattered parts of the state depending on creeks to water fields are "hurting big time," he said. "They are literally up the creek."
The Utah Farm Bureau adds that some members who take 12 to 14 turns a season at the irrigation canal to get their water have had those turns reduced to as few as four.
For many, that means their growing season that normally would extend to late September or early October is done. In some areas, that have left a 10 percent yield on crops.
Todd Adams, assistant director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, said it's been so dry and hot this year that it is taking twice the amount of water — or 200 percent — to keep turf grass healthy as it did last year.
The good news, Adams said, is that municipal and industrial water use is up only 32 percent for the state from last year.
"We're doing quite well," he said. "With that said, we can do better. What we save this year, we can carry over next year. And we don't know what kind of winter we are going to have."
Are there lessons to be learned from the drought?
Watch the sales at grocery stores and stock up on supplies you think you may need.
Some families go in together and split the cost of buying a hog or steer and having it slaughtered and butchered. Talk to neighbors, friends. Exchange ideas on ensuring fresh food supplies.
When it comes to water, tell your children to turn the tap off while they brush their teeth. Do the same. The water you save won't help with the water needs of a Tooele County rancher, but it could stay in the system for next year's use in another household.
The division offers a variety of advice and guides on water-saving tips at www.conservewater.utah.gov.
Burton said he hopes people get over the idea that because water comes out a tap, or even out of streams fed by reservoir storage, there is some sort of endless supply.
"If you can get by with on a little less, use a little less," he said. "Conservation in a year like this is extremely important to survive next year."