But (farmers are) very cautious in trying to use their water early because they know that the water is even more precious later in the summer. —Tage Flint, general manager of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District
Dave Hinckley began irrigating his fruit trees this week. The farmer-rancher from Salt Lake City decided it was time to get ahead of a fickled Mother Nature.
"This has been about the driest winter any of us can remember," Hinckley said as he walked through a parched field north of Salt Lake International Airport.
Some farmers in Northern Utah have asked water managers to release irrigation water much earlier than usual. Hinckley decided to water the fruit trees, but not the nearby fields where he grows alfalfa, corn and other crops. He worries that nature may have one more trick up its sleeve.
"I'd love to get an inch of rain and I wouldn't have to irrigate," Hinckley said, noting that two inches of rain might ruin his crops. "You can get too much, just as quickly as not enough," he said.
Hinckley has more control over his water supply than most farmers. He has a water right in the Jordan River and can take water when he wants it. Most farmers have to wait for someone else to make the decision because they get their water from a canal company or a water district.
As always, there's a balancing act between using water and conserving it.
Tage Flint, general manager of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, said his agency will stick to its normal schedule. The flow of agricultural water will begin in the last half of April. He acknowledged that a few farmers have asked for an early start.
"But they're very cautious in trying to use their water early," Flint said, "because they know that the water is even more precious later in the summer."
March precipitation was from 56 percent to 71 percent below normal throughout the state. That's left snowpack below average with the southeast near melt out and the remainder of the state in the 40 percent to 60 percent range. Still, reservoirs in the mountains are generally full, helped by last year's near record show levels, so managers expect a normal flow of water through the standard irrigating season.
The district will begin releases to urban water users on the Northern Wasatch Front on the normal date of April 15th. That water, largely for lawns and gardens, is delivered through a pressurized irrigation system. Farmers and ranchers will begin getting their canal water a few days later.
Those who would like to start irrigating earlier will just have to wait, Flint said. "It's very difficult for us to gear up the entire system for just a few users. By and large, most of our farmers are willing to wait until the normal time."
Those, like Hinckley, whose livelihood depends on water from the skies or from the mountains, are accustomed to living with extremes of weather. But this year's extreme is the exact opposite of last year's. Farmers can't recall two years as different as 2011 and 2012.
The contrast is "utterly unbelievable," Hinckley said.
A year ago, his cows west of the airport were slogging around in standing water and muddy fields during the annual calving season. This year it's as dry as a cow skull in the desert.
"But it's been marvelous, calving cows," this year Hinckley said. The dry fields make the birthing process easier for mother cows and for ranch workers.
In many fields, just below the surface there is leftover moisture from last year. Hinckley exposed a damp spot simply by pushing bone-dry topsoil away with his boot.
Hinckley said most farmers can afford to wait for their water. Their demands vary, he says, depending on what crops they grow and what their fields are like.
The weather is simply part of the farming life: "We can't affect it. We can't change it. We can adjust and exist," Hinckley said.