CENTERFIELD, Sanpete County — Zack Jensen is an eighth-generation farmer and rancher who is learning how to grow optimism this year because the drought has left him with little other choice.
"You look over to the west to the mountains and you see these big dark clouds coming," Jensen said, describing the spring storms rolling in.
The dark and menacing clouds are full of hope and promise that much-needed rain will moisten the parched earth.
"As soon as they get on our side of the mountain, they deteriorate into nothing," Jensen said. "We just get the wind."
Sanpete County Commissioner Scott Bartholomew, also a farmer, noted the harsh truth: "All these storms brought was wind. And you can't water with wind."
Jensen says irrigation company records show it hasn't been this dry in Sanpete County in 41 years.
"We are definitely in panic mode."
He's harvesting his first cut of hay, but will idle 75 percent of the rest of his field for the second round.
"As long as we can get a second decent crop, that is better than nothing."
Bartholomew said it's dire throughout the county.
"It's pretty serious. Unless you have some sort of irrigation, there is nothing growing at all."
Sanpete County, however, is not alone.
Multiple counties across the state made an emergency disaster declaration because of the low water year and dry conditions. May was the hottest on record in the lower 48 states in 84 years, eclipsing a Dust Bowl-era record set in 1934, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"The future is very dismal," said Norman Johnson, from the San Juan County Water Conservancy District. "There will be no carryover for next year unless we get snowpack. We had zero runoff from the Abajo Mountains."
Hay farmers will get one cutting.
"Then they will run out of water," he said.
Johnson said farmers usually get two cuttings, sometimes a third. But even this first crop will be somewhat stunted.
Across these most severely affected counties in Utah, the $332 million hay and alfalfa industry is taking a hit.
"Alfalfa is the No. 1 crop of Utah," said Earl Creech, an agronomist with Utah State University's Extension Service.
"We're in love with it and we are really good at growing it," Creech said. "We export hay all over the United States and the world."
Creech said the drought's impacts on the crop will be felt across the state.
"It will be a huge hit, not only to the farmers, but the rural communities they live in and the state as a whole. It is a big economic driver for Utah."
The drought has farmers making tough choices.
Some farmers like Jensen aren't planting corn for cattle and poultry feed — corn takes more water than a crop like oats — so the effects are hurting ranchers and other agricultural producers who depend on it.
Pastures are drying up as well.
"There's no feed for the cattle out in their normal grazing areas," Johnson said. "We are not getting any natural grasses growing."
Allen Henrie, president of the West Panguitch Irrigation System, said almost everyone will start selling off cattle early before the prices get more depressed.
His system is blocking off the Sevier River — running it nearly dry in some locations — so water can get to the farmers. Along its route, it will recharge from groundwater.
"Sevier River is dismal, dismal. I have never seen it this dry on the Sevier River side," Henrie said.
Sometimes, a low snowpack year finds some respite with a rainy spring that delays the need to irrigate.
This hasn't been that year for southern and central Utah.
"There's no good news anywhere, and we are the worst of the worst," Johnson said.
It's a different story for other parts of the state.
Most northern Utah reservoirs are close to full. Deer Creek is at 94 percent capacity, East Canyon sits at 98 percent and Jordanelle is at 97 percent. Those reservoirs may save the irrigation season, but water managers are anxiously hoping to hang onto enough storage going into the fall — in case next year is just as bad.
There will be little to no carryover in other areas, when you consider that Gunnison Reservoir on the San Pitch River is dry, Yuba is 21 percent and Piute is at 23 percent.
Some farms may be eligible for disaster assistance from the federal government via low-interest loans.
Johnson, however, said it is bitter comfort.
"No amount of declarations or government assistance is going to fix it," he said. "It is dry."
Water curtailments are also in effect and more are looming in Washington County, where the Virgin River Basin sits at 20 percent of average.
Some with junior water rights will have to forgo any water this season.
"Honestly, in terms of snowpack and runoff, I think it is probably the worst I've seen in my career," said Ron Thompson, who has been with the Washington County Water Conservancy District for 35 years and is now its general manager.
Creech said funding from the Utah Legislature is kick-starting new research from USU looking at alternative crops and ways to get water to crops more efficiently.
"But in a year when there is no water in the system, it doesn't matter how efficient it is, there is nothing there," he said.
Creech grows hay in Cache Valley and as a farmer understands the constant challenges.
"It's heartbreaking. There is really nothing you can do about it. It's the weather," he said. "You just sit there and watch your crops burn up."
In Sanpete County, it takes several days at M&K Farms for the Jensen family to cut and bale 1,600 acres of hay.
It's hot and dusty work, with other crops to manage as well as a 5,000-head feed lot of cattle.51 comments on this story
Because of the drought, Jensen said they aren't going to have hardly any feed.
When asked about his plan, Jensen's answer was simple.
"Don't know yet."
At 32, he still has plenty of energy left in him for worry — but Jensen says he'll keep looking at those mountains and clouds.
"As a normal human being you keep hoping things will change, that you're going to have rain," he said. "Our genetic makeup is why we do this. It's going to be a better day tomorrow and a better year next year."