Waterline is an ongoing series of stories exploring the intersection of water, climate and food, told through the eyes of the people impacted by these issues. It is funded by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation.
The Bear River flows out of Wyoming’s Uinta Mountains, winding 350 miles through sagebrush meadows and agricultural fields in Idaho and Utah before it fans out into wetlands 50 miles north of Salt Lake City. It’s the longest river on the continent that does not drain into the sea, and the largest source of water filling the Great Salt Lake.
One of the river’s last stops before it reaches the lake is Mitch and Holly Hancock’s farm, NooSun Dairy. Like hundreds of other farmers, the Hancocks divert water from the Bear River to irrigate crops like alfalfa hay and corn that feed their 3,000 cows.
Since they live in the desert, the Hancocks spend a lot of time asking themselves how to protect and maximize their water, which Holly calls “one of our most valuable resources.”
“The only thing we can control on our farm is how efficient we are,” Holly explains. She was born on the farm in 1982, the same year her parents bought it. She says one of the family’s guiding principles for managing their business is: “How can we improve our processes so that we do more with less?”
Holly and Mitch recently made several improvements to their irrigation system to conserve water. They piped the farm’s earthen ditches so less water is lost to evaporation or seepage as it travels from the river to their fields. Mitch recounts that before the piping project, it took 45 minutes for water to reach one of their hay fields. Now it takes 45 seconds. “All that savings from point A to point B now stays in the lake,” Mitch says. “And every inch helps, right?”
Farmers and ranchers are key to helping solve Utah’s water crisis. In the face of a shrinking Great Salt Lake, irrigators like the Hancocks are stepping up to voluntarily conserve water in creative ways. And the benefits go both ways: Not only do such efforts keep the lake and its ecosystem alive, they also help agricultural producers grow food more efficiently.
Water is a particularly hot topic in Utah. The Great Salt Lake hit a record low in November 2022, shriveling its surface area to less than half of the historic average. This was a call to action for people throughout the region since the lake’s decline threatens to upend ecosystems and disrupt the local economy.
The lake pumps $2.5 billion into the state each year from industries like recreation, mineral extraction and harvesting brine shrimp. It supports 80 percent of Utah’s wetlands and 10 million migrating birds. And it even helps generate the powdery snow that draws up to seven million people per year to Salt Lake City to ski.
The 22-year-long megadrought in the American Southwest certainly played a role in shrinking the lake. But the main reason for its decline is that people are diverting water from the rivers that refill the lake. Three-quarters of the diverted water is used to irrigate crops — mainly grasses grown to feed cattle that produce beef or dairy, the state’s chief agricultural commodities. If people continue to use water at the current rate, the Great Salt Lake will likely disappear within five years, according to a report published by Brigham Young University in January.
Now for the good news: if agricultural and other outdoor water use is cut by one-third to one-half, the lake will likely refill to a level that can support local communities and the ecosystem. Voluntary conservation actions like the Hancocks’ irrigation upgrades are the most important — and most attainable — measures for keeping the Western Hemisphere’s largest saline lake alive.
Mitch believes that agriculture is sometimes framed as “the bad guy” because there’s a lack of understanding that farmers “want to be proactive” to help care for the water that sustains their business. He estimates that about half of the farmers in his area are participating in conservation projects.
That includes Joel Ferry, a fifth-generation cattle rancher. Like his neighbors, Ferry is setting an example of what he calls “water optimization”: growing as much or more using less water. On his family’s ranch, Ferry has installed 100,000 feet of irrigation pipe to replace leaking canals, and used a laser and GPS units to precisely level thousands of acres so the ground can be irrigated more efficiently. He also switched to no-till practices and cover crops and composting practices that all save water by not disturbing soil.
These practices mean more water now flows into the wetlands at the north end of the Great Salt Lake, which are an oasis for wildlife. “In a normal drought cycle, these wetlands would have been dry and desolate,” Ferry says. But even during Utah’s driest years on record they stayed wet, thanks in part to his family’s voluntary conservation actions.
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Ferry’s good intentions attracted attention. In 2022, he was appointed director of Utah’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Along with the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, the DNR has overseen the investment of $276 million in the state’s Agricultural Water Optimization Program since 2019. This program funds 50 percent of a farmer’s irrigation efficiency upgrades — like the Hancocks’ piping project — and also quantifies how much water will be conserved for the environment. Landowners must contribute at least 10 percent of the total project cost, but the other 40 percent often comes from federal cost-share, like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program funded by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
In addition to saving water, Ferry says the optimization program helps agricultural producers “become more resilient and viable and hopefully more profitable on these landscapes.” On the shores of the Bear River where Ferry farms, he gets better crop yields from the bevy of water and soil conservation practices he’s put in place. Plus, he says, “I don’t have to drought-stress my crops because I’m able to get water to them when they need it.”
Overall, Utah has invested over $1 billion in all types of water conservation programs over the past two years. “This is a monumental, generational investment from the state in water conservation that’s just never been seen before,” Ferry notes.
The funding includes $250 million for installing tens of thousands of meters to track people’s outdoor water use. Research shows that just seeing how much water they consume results in people using about 25 percent less. Another conservation success has been offering incentives for residential homeowners to remove water-guzzling lawns, and banning a local practice of fining people who choose not to keep their grass green during the driest months. While the benefits of not watering a patch of lawn here and there might not be noticeable on the macro-level, “when you do it on tens of thousands of acres, it adds up” to a measurable difference in water savings, Ferry says.
Utah’s investment from the policy side is equally monumental, particularly if the state hopes to protect conserved water in streams, rivers, wetlands or the Great Salt Lake. “In the West, we have these ‘use it or lose it’ water laws. It’s a disincentive, in particular to agriculture, to save water and to leave it in the stream,” Ferry says.
He’s referring to the Prior Appropriation Doctrine, the set of laws that govern how water is administered in the western U.S. It was created to accommodate settlers moving west in the 1800s who hoped to “make the desert bloom,” says Emily Lewis, a professor at University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney School of Law.
The doctrine is based on seniority: the first person to divert water from a stream, river or lake for a beneficial use, like agriculture or mining, gets first dibs. If a senior right holder doesn’t use it, the water goes to the junior right holder next in line. This doctrine spawned the old adage: “Whisky is for drinkin’ and water is for fightin’.”
Historically, leaving water in a river wasn’t considered a beneficial use. This left the environment severely shortchanged. Most waterways in the West have no legal requirements to keep them flowing, so many streams are sucked dry during the summer. Fish, birds and plants all suffer as a result.
But many western states, including Utah, are adapting the Prior Appropriate Doctrine to better reflect changing values. “We’re doing some serious spring cleaning here on the water rights system,” Ferry says.
Over the last five years, Lewis says the Utah Legislature has passed 64 water bills and “totally modernized its water law”. The state has been able “to go directly from step one to step ten”, Lewis says, because they were able to learn what’s worked for neighboring states like Colorado and Nevada, which have grappled for decades with water shortages.
This includes recognizing in-stream flow as a beneficial use and setting up systems that allow for water marketing – in other words, giving people the ability to lease, sell or donate some or all of their water to another use without forfeiting their property rights. In 2022, the Utah Legislature also allocated $40 million to create a water trust that will compensate willing sellers for moving water from out-of-stream uses to environmental flows to enhance the Great Salt Lake watershed.
The new water trust will build on lessons learned during pilot water marketing projects run by the Utah Water Banking Program. One of the first lessons was that people were excited about the chance to manage their water rights more flexibly. The program set out to start three pilot projects, but “ended up with four because we had such big interest,” says Lewis, who manages the program.
Over the past three years, Lewis has also learned that getting water from a farmer’s diversion all the way down a river and into the Great Salt Lake faces a gauntlet of administrative, legal, hydrological and engineering hurdles. She thinks one of the main challenges is “how to organize people’s thinking about water marketing because it’s just such a big topic.” The state just released a new website to help people get clearer answers about how to buy or sell water rights.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle to restoring the Great Salt Lake is the lack of tools to track water as it moves through the system. Utah, like many places in the water-starved West, desperately needs better ways to measure how much water is actually flowing in its streams, canals, pipes or faucets on any given day. “It’s the linchpin,” says Lewis. “No one is going to lease or pay for water for the lake unless they know a wet water molecule is going to get from point A to point B.”
Despite all of these challenges, Lewis still firmly believes that water marketing “has to be one of the solutions” for refilling the Great Salt Lake. She points out that water right holders like Ferry participated in drafting recent policies so they reflect what will work on the ground for farmers and ranchers. “We’re talking silver buckshot solutions,” says Lewis. “We’re not talking about doing one hard thing, we’re doing 100 hard things all at the same time.”
Others in the state are still searching for a silver bullet. A lawsuit filed in September argues that the State of Utah should enact the public trust doctrine to protect the lake by summarily cutting off water to agricultural and other users to benefit the environment. This litigation will likely take decades to resolve. Meanwhile, the Great Salt Lake faces continued pressure from rapid population growth, climate change and competing demands for dwindling water supplies.
Ferry asks himself all the time what else Utah can do to ensure there’s enough water in the future for agriculture, communities and the environment. “It’s a three-legged stool,” he says. “We cannot neglect one of those legs or it’s game over.”
He keeps coming back to one tried-and-true approach: the best way to keep the stool from toppling — and the Great Salt Lake from disappearing — is to help people do more with less water.
Back at the north end of Great Salt Lake, Mitch and Holly Hancock are taking another step to do just that. This spring they will automate their irrigation system to make sure they’re not over-watering their drought-resistant crops, and to keep nutrients and topsoil from washing away.
Both Holly and Mitch say their long-term goal for Noosun Dairy is that it will be set up for their kids to farm in the future, if they want to. “Everything we do including water conservation is geared toward leaving it better than we found it,” Mitch says.