With extreme drought conditions impacting all of Utah, all citizens of this state have been asked to take large measures to help sustain our limited water supply this year.

Simple things such as taking shorter showers, installing water-efficient appliances and systems, and limiting the watering of our lawns are just a few examples of what has been asked of us to “Slow the Flow.” However, each time a new plea to conserve water is issued, a wave of criticism of farmers and ranchers and their water use practices follows right behind. 

While it is true that agricultural water use makes up the majority of Utah’s water usage, there are many things about agricultural water use that are unknown to the general public, including many benefits that are provided to Utah’s natural resources. Here are a few facts to consider:

  • Agricultural water use has natural restrictions based on the regional precipitation, soil moisture and the amount of water runoff available from precipitation during the winter months. Once the water is gone, there is no more irrigation water for the fields. 
  • Farmers and ranchers are limited to what water rights they own or are available to them. They do not have unlimited access to whatever water they want or need. 
  • Water used for agricultural purposes is secondary, meaning it is untreated, unfiltered water that cannot be used for drinking or everyday human use. 
  • Projects that bring water to Utah’s deserts and wildlands for livestock also help sustain wildlife year-round in those areas. 
  • Flood irrigation helps maintain water levels in household and municipal wells by recharging aquifers.
  • Farmers and ranchers continually work toward adopting more efficient watering practices. Irrigation system upgrades have helped many increase their water efficiency and become up to 90% water efficient. 
  • The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food is helping farmers implement more efficient irrigation systems through our Water Optimization Program. In the first year of projects, Utah farmers saved 27,910 acre-feet of water — that’s about 9.1 billion gallons of water!
  • Most importantly, water used in agriculture provides the food and fiber that sustains us all. As we’ve discovered over the past year-and-a-half, the importance of local food security cannot be overstated. Local agriculture is the key to local food security.
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So why should you care? Farmers and ranchers in Utah have already experienced water cuts of 70-75% compared to last year. This means the planting of crops has been cut and crop yields will be limited. The trickle-down effect from these limited crops will affect all of us. 

The north and south branches of the South Fork of the Ogden River flow into Pineview Reservoir near Huntsville, Weber County, on Monday, June 28, 2021. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Currently, Utah Department of Agriculture and Food is monitoring the effects of hay shortages across our state and nation. Farmers and ranchers have limited access to grazing areas and pastures because there isn’t enough moisture to keep the grass growing and hay supplies are being depleted.

With hay crop yields being cut in half in most areas, and by as much as 75-90% in southern Utah, major hay shortages are projected across the state. Many farmers and ranchers won’t be able to feed their livestock in the coming months and will be forced to sell out of state. This will impact meat prices for years to come as it will take farmers and ranchers years to rebuild their herds and their communities will suffer as a result. Every cow sold represents a $555 loss to a local economy. That hurts everyone.  

Everything in this world has an origin point, and for our food supply, that origin is the farmers and ranchers who produce our food. Without them, our food security will be diminished. The Utah products we all love, like grass fed beef, world class dairy, sweet corn, and more will be put at risk.  

Farmers and ranchers need our support now more than ever. We all need to seek to understand before seeking to be understood; try to understand why farms and ranches use the water they do and consider the value their work brings to our everyday lives.

As we all work toward improving our conservation efforts, let us look at what is important during times of crisis and provide support to those who need it most. Farmers and ranchers are providing food and fiber for all of us and benefiting Utah’s natural resources at the same time. 

Let us come together as Utahns do best and work to overcome this devastating drought. 

Craig Buttars is commissioner of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food.