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SAN JUAN THIRSTS FOR DROUGHT’S END

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Not since the Great Depression has the land been this dry in San Juan County, locus of an almost-overnight dust bowl that encompasses Utah's rural southeast corner.

"It's the first time I've never worked the ground in the spring, and we're talking 50 years," said John Johnsen, who next week will cut an anemic wheat crop a month earlier than usual before the summer sun kills it altogether.Johnsen stood in a dusty field the other day as he scouted an afternoon horizon that held some hope of rain as thunderheads formed east of his farm, off toward the Colorado line. Clouds darkened the view to the west as well.

But the sky only yielded a sprinkle.

"It was about enough to settle the dust," said Bruce Lyman, a disappointed wheat and cattle ranch-er 30 miles to the south at Blanding.

Lyman, Andersen and hundreds of others are in the same boat, watching the same tired San Juan refrain: storms skirting the area time and again only to leave it untouched, all but wiping out a whole

year of farming.

"Some say it hasn't been this bad since the '30s," said Rick M. Bailey, the county's director of emergency services.

Since October of last year, the state-manned port of entry east of town has measured 2.3 inches of rain, barely a quarter ofwhat normally falls during that period. The Blue Mountains west of town only received 17 percent of their normal snowpack last winter, a disheartening result only under-scored by the irony of preciptation-as-usual in nearby watersheds. Just a half-hour to the north, the La Sal Mountains at Moab reported 100 percent of the usual snowpack.

Though the local climate even in good years is anything but wet, its modest precipitation for generations has sustained a healthy, if small and often-precarious, agricultural industry in a county of 13,600 inhabitants. In recent times, farmers here have produced winter wheat, pinto beans, safflower and alfalfa totaling more than $10 million in annual value.

This year's dry spell triggered a federal agricultural state of emergency declaration by the Clinton Administration, but Republican cutbacks in assorted farm-emergency programs has rendered that action almost irrelevant.

"It doesn't do anybody here a lot of good," said Bailey, noting congressional reforms that this year eliminated programs that would have offered emergency subsidies under current conditions. Now, farmers can only qualify for low-interest loans.

But loans don't do much for operations that normally harvest 23 bushels of wheat per acre and this year will be lucky to get 12.

"It's a 60- to 70-percent loss," said Doug Christensen, county director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's local Farm Service Agency office. A wheat crop that in average seasons would fetch almost $4 million in 1996 will be worth less than $1 million, said Christensen, and that's assuming all 30,000 acres of the area's wheat fields yield a harvest.

Indications, however, are that many farmers aren't even bothering to reap what they've sown because the cost of harvest would be lost on the paltry return. Bean fields are in even worse shape, planted this spring in dry ground that has yet to see any rain and in which not a single bean has sprouted.

Fallout from the drought is felt by non-farmers too. During a two-day period last week, a brief and passing set of thunderstorms ignited 40 fires around the county on tinderbox grasslands. State and federal firefighters set up a temporary encampment on the high school football field as they dispatched teams of smoke jumpers.

In the county seat of Monticello, population 2,250, emergency water conservation measures have been in place since June 1, limiting lawn-watering to one two-hour period in the morning and one in the evening. Sprinklers have been outlawed entirely for gardens, flowers and trees, and overnight watering of any kind is now against city ordinance. Water service is cut off to second-time offenders.

Total consumption in Monticello is about 1 million gallons per day this summer, a number that sounds adequate enough but stands in marked contrast to the 1.7 million gallons the town normally consumes in non-drought times.

City manager Trent Schafer said Monticello has been forced this year to take conservation more seriously and to look at the long view as well. This week the City Council was threatening to declare its own emergency, a step aimed at getting the federal government to share in the cost of a $2.5 million project that would tap an already charted artesian well and build another small reservoir to back up Lloyds Lake, the city's major and badly depleted culinary water source.

Schafer said Washington is being asked to step up largely because a massive Department of Energy program aimed at cleaning up soil tainted years ago by the uranium industry uses about 200,000 gallons of city water daily.

Bailey said the economic ripples of the drought reach far. "One guy told me that he normally spends $400 to $600 a month at the parts store but that in the last two months he's spent five and six dollars, respectively."

Lyman said restaurant owners in Blanding have reported falloffs in business, a trend attributed to a farm-based clientele that finds itself on hard times.

"A lot of these guys just don't have any money," said Lyman, whose own operation is typical of most in the area.

Lyman and his father planted 800 acres of wheat this year, expecting to get 24 to 28 bushels per acre; they will likely harvest between eight and 10 bushels per acre next week. Similarly, their cattle enterprise is hurting, hindered by low market prices and the high cost of hay.

A year or two ago, many cattlemen paid $800 a head for heifers that today - with a calf - would fetch no more than $250. Much of the market drop is being fueled by cattlemen hurrying to sell stock they cannot feed, though the quandary many face is whether to cut their startling losses now or continue to feed their herds with hay rendered nearly priceless by the drought.

To put a face on the circumstances, Johnsen earlier this week did a calculation in his head in a quick attempt to figure the hit he will take in this dry year. He said a 5,000-acre crop he would typically sell for $250,000 to grain elevators in Ogden will likely be big enough to get only $75,000 this summer, maybe $100,000.

Kicking a dirt clod that had the density of a stone, Johnsen eyed the sky again, perhaps contemplating a rain dance as he considered a winter-wheat planting this fall that cannot succeed without rain. "If we don't get it, we'll be in real trouble," said Johnsen.