Utah farmers who have watched sunbaked soil crack and blow away from four years of drought say they could face disaster if this winter's snowpack fails to replenish water-starved land and refill reservoirs.
Farmers statewide have had to nourish their crops on only a pittance of moisture during the past few years. Reservoirs are critically low and as this winter begins, farmers are watching the sky for signs of storm clouds to add to the mountain snowpack."This is a watershed year," said Vic Saunders, Utah Farm Bureau vice president of communications. "If we have a winter where there's not much snow - just a dusting to cover the mountains - then we'll have problems."
Bill Alder, National Weather Service meteorologist in Salt Lake City, said the state received 80 percent of normal moisture in the water year that ended Sept. 30. Utah's Dixie area received only 61 percent and southeastern Utah had only 66 percent.
Alder said the numbers would not be so bad if it were only one year of drought, but last year was the fourth year of drought in northern Utah and the third in the south. Dry soil soaked up much of the moisture flowing out of the mountains before it reached reservoirs.
One illustration of how water-starved soil absorbs moisture is in the Weber Basin, which received 60-70 percent of normal snowfall last winter, but much less water reached the reservoirs.
"If you had 60-70 percent (snowpack), you would expect the runoff to be in that range," said Clark Ogden, state Division of Water Resources meteorologist. "But the runoff was only 19 percent of normal. What that tells you is that the soil moisture was so low . . . that it soaked up the water like a sponge."
When there's little rainfall or snowpack to nourish the range, native plants are the first to wither. Last year, federal range managers closed down some of the land to grazing, forcing cattlemen to buy feed elsewhere at a higher cost.
"The No. 1 problem is the condition of the grasses on the range," Ogden said. "Those grasses don't bounce back in one year. When big game and cattle and sheep get on those ranges . . . they take that grass down so close to the roots it takes a long time for it to bounce back."
Saunders agrees that the water shortage has cost farmers and ranchers, but the Farm Bureau has yet to put a dollar figure on the losses. He said the bureau still was compiling figures on this year's harvest, but he said the water shortage has cut cattle weights and yields for grains.
"It's definitely an impact," Saunders said. "No one knows for sure how big the reduced yields were in wheat, grain or barley. And I don't think there's any doubt that the drought has impacted the dryland farms."
The water shortage also has cut into Utah's tourism industry, especially skiing.
Brad Barber, state director of demographic and economic analysis, said most ski resorts were unable to open until after Christmas last year. Resorts lost the estimated daily $145 that skiers would have spent in the state during the holidays, Barber said.
"There's no question the ski industry was hurt last year," Barber said, adding that skier visits were down 72,000 from the previous year.
Resort owners had entered the season expecting growth from the previous year for a business in which 60 percent of the skiers come from out of state. Barber estimates that the drought cost Utah resort owners, restaurant owners and hotel owners at least 100,000 skiers.
The water shortage also has strapped many smaller communities, especially those relying on springs to fill reservoirs for culinary water. Tim Pine, an engineer with the state bureau of drinking water and sanitation, said that by the end of last summer, 28 communities reported water problems.
He said most of those implemented restrictions on outside watering or similar measures, but residents of some communities received only air when turning on their faucets.
Michael Georgeson, bureau engineering manager, said residents in the southern Utah community of Tropic have been drawing water out of a tanker truck because a spring feeding the water system has dried up.
He said the bureau has been inundated with requests for grants from communities seeking to upgrade their systems, but there is only $2 million available and far more than that in requests.
Georgeson's department is asking the state for $8 million, and the Legislature's interim Energy and Natural Resources Committee will take up the matter later this month.
Without the money, smaller, older communities with the bulk of their residents on fixed incomes would be forced to charge outrageous fees for water.
"If Tropic had to borrow the money they need to upgrade their system, their water bills would average $75 a month," Pine said.
Meantime, officials hope to buy time with a good winter snowpack. Alder at the weather service and others say the state needs 125 percent of normal snowfall to help recharge soil moisture and refill reservoirs.
So far, northern Utah has had at least one good snowstorm and several ski resorts opened for the Thanksgiving weekend. But Ogden at the state Division of Natural Resources said the state needs more than one good winter.
"A lot of people think we need one good snowfall," he said. "We're four or five years in the hole in some of these mountain ranges, and one storm won't do it.
"I don't think we're going to recover completely in one winter," Ogden said.