Deep Dive: Even with recent rain, farmers, canal cos. & homeowners brace for short irrigation season during drought

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It’s hard to raise grass-fed lamb without a green pasture for the flock to graze on. 

For roughly half the year, Janie Burns moves her roughly 75 sheep back and forth across her ten-acre farm on the outskirts of Nampa. She moves the herd from pasture to pasture throughout the irrigation season, letting the animals chase the green grass as it grows before they are big enough to head to the butcher and into customers’ baskets at the Boise Farmer’s Market. 

[You asked: Where will Avimor get its water from?]

The key to her operation and all the farming operations on the homestead before hers dating back to 1915 is the irrigation ditch running along one side of her property. Using this irrigation lateral, she can order water from the Nampa-Meridian Irrigation District, flood her fields, and set her sheep loose to grow and prosper. It keeps her patch of paradise in the Treasure Valley high desert green from April to mid-October. 

Or it’s supposed to. 

This year water filled the ditch two weeks later than usual, and she expects it to go dry by the end of August. This could leave her with less time to graze her animals and more money spent on hay in the fall to keep up with their hungry mouths. And with the unpredictable weather, it’s hard to know exactly how long she can expect her water to last and how much extra food she needs to buy to get her sheep to the end of the season. 

“We’re kind of shooting in the dark,” she said, watching her flock chow down behind her barn. “I’m going to have to order hay to cover that shortfall, and it’s going to be expensive, but what can I do? I have to anticipate the unknowable.”

Farmers across the Treasure Valley, and the greater Mountain West, are looking ahead to a year full of tough choices as drought continues to grip most of the region.

A rainy and cool April and early May in the Treasure Valley has eased some of the worries, but even additional water can evaporate quickly if we have another record-breaking heat wave like last year.

The tough conditions push farmers to reevaluate how they will keep their animals fed and watered, what crops and how much to plant, and potentially ends irrigation earlier for homeowners who use it to water their lawns. 

And as the Treasure Valley grows and scientists continue to predict rising temperatures due to climate change, these tough choices and slim water years will become the norm. 

It’s all about the weather 

Things got tough in Idaho, and the rest of the West, last year and 2022 could likely be more of the same. 

According to the latest data from the National Drought Mitigation Center out of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, roughly 80% of nine western states are at least in severe drought. Of the entire western region, 37% of the same nine states reached extreme drought. A study released earlier this year using data from tree rings estimated the twenty-two-year-long drought in the Southwestern United States is the worst in the region since 800 A.D, according to the New York Times

According to the National Drought Mitigation Center, recent weeks of cool, wet weather have helped bring moisture levels up in Idaho, but two-thirds of the state is still in severe drought. The Idaho Department of Water Resources issued an emergency drought declaration for 34 Southern Idaho counties late last month. The National Drought Mitigation Center data shows only 5% of the state is in extreme drought, but those numbers can change on a dime depending on what sort of summer the Gem State has. 

Mike Meyers, water master for the Boise River irrigation system, said the Treasure Valley is 300,000 acre-feet of water shy of filling the three reservoirs in the Boise Foothills used to get the valley and its agricultural producers through the summer. The snow levels are looking slightly better now than they were at this point a year ago, but it can all change on a dime. 

Spring Shores Marina
The Springs Shores Marina in Boise County at the edge of Lucky Peak Reservoir. Photo: Don Day/BoiseDev

He said if temperatures stay down and the rain keeps coming a few more weeks into the year, the snowpack will hold longer, and the runoff from the mountains can help keep irrigators in business further into the year. But, if we get a stunning heatwave like the region faced last year, things can take a turn for the worst, fast. 

“It is very hard to tell how the snowpack is going to come off every year because every year is all weather dependent,” Meyers said. “The unpredictability makes it extremely hard for agricultural folks to plan and makes it hard for canal companies to plan their allocations for their farmers and different patrons.”

Planning is key 

After last year’s especially short water year and compounding dry seasons before that, John McPherson moves his resources around his Kuna-area fields like pieces on a chessboard. 

Together with his father, he farms several hundred acres of several crops, including corn, wheat, hay, and beans. But, this year, due to the plans for a shorter water season, he is considering fallowing a third of his acreage to use the water from those fields elsewhere to get him to the end of the season. The recent weeks of rain mean a much better outlook, but he’s still putting together plans A, B, and C to balance what crops he should plant with the water he can expect to receive from the Boise River irrigation system.

McPherson is trying to strike a balance between not overplanting and risking losing some of his crops if water comes up short again, but planting enough to take advantage of high prices for corn, beans, and other products on the market right now.

He said while back-to-back years of drought are difficult on his crops, knowing he has less water and fewer irrigation days to work with means he knows how much to plant and what crops he should invest in that don’t need to be watered all year. This strategizing is especially important when prices for fertilizer, chemicals, and fuel for his tractors are all way up over last year, hitting his bottom line even harder. 

Even as water levels are looking better right now, he doesn’t want to get in over his head while still turning a maximum profit.

“With the rain we got not just overnight, but in the last week even it’s drastically changed,” he said. “It’s like everybody is trying to figure out a plan B of where we go from here, but until we hear what (the canal companies) have to say you have to formulate a back up plan and maybe two plans and see what you can make work. Everybody hates to leave ground out on a year when the commodity prices are so high.

John McPherson looks out at a busy Kuna street. Photo: Margaret Carmel/BoiseDev

McPherson still uses traditional flood irrigation, meaning he opens a gate, and the water flows across his entire field, soaking the ground. For some of his fields, it can take as long as a week for the water to creep all the way across. This system has the advantage of not costing him extra for any infrastructure, and it allows the water to soak into the ground to recharge the aquifer for well water users. 

But, it uses a lot of water. As drought has persisted and short water years become more common than normal ones in the West, more and more farmers in the Treasure Valley have switched to drip irrigation or bought large pivoting sprinklers to water their fields to control their water usage better. McPherson hasn’t bought a new watering system yet, but he’s considering it. 

No matter how he waters his fields, though, McPherson is looking to leave the Treasure Valley after years of family history. The rapid growth pushing out farmers and growing traffic on Kuna’s country roads pushes him to look to Nyssa, Emmett, or the Magic Valley as possible places to land. 

“From one year to the next, when this area of the valley is growing, it’s not conducive for my line of work to continue since I’m in the way of all the development,” he said. “I’d rather be from Kuna than in Kuna, as much as I love this town.”

Fruits and vegetable growers struggling too

Shay Meyers is always running numbers on the top floor of an onion packing shed near the Oregon border. 

Meyers is the CEO of Owyhee Produce, a company growing up to ten crops a year in Oregon and Idaho, spanning asparagus to watermelon. As the third generation of his family working in the operation, he works with eight other families to keep the decades-old network of farms in business despite a growing number of challenges. 

Like, McPherson, he plans to fallow some fields this year in order to stretch his water allotment to cover what his crops need. But, it’s not just deciding how to make a smaller amount of water cover the crops he has, it’s about figuring out what he can plant and what he can’t, knowing the water might not be there by the end of August.

This presents problems for crops like onions that cannot be planted in the same field several years in a row. But, if no other crops will be able to withstand the lack of water at the end of the season, it leaves Meyers with difficult choices. If he can’t finish a crop, it can hurt his bottom line up to 40% in a single year and put him in a financial hole that can be harder and harder to climb out of as the Treasure Valley sees multiple compounding years of drought. 

“When you’re in the desert, you have to have water,” Meyers said. “There’s no changing that. Can we reduce the amount of water we need? Yes, we can, but we can only reduce it. We can never make it zero.”

Shay Meyers poses in front of stacks of onion crates outside of Parma. Photo: Margaret Carmel/BoiseDev

This also comes at a time when Meyers said agriculture is facing pressures from other aspects of the market, not just the weather. He said Oregon’s requirement for farmworkers to make $17.50 an hour, plus more for overtime, pushes farmers to pick up and leave to seek lower costs in Mexico and elsewhere. On top of other regulations and pressures from elsewhere in the grocery supply chain to keep prices low due to inflation, Meyers feels increasingly boxed in by market forces. 

He forecasts these factors could drastically impact the food supply in the United States long term. 

“I used to love what I did, and I’m only 41 years old, and I still love what I do, but I am just more and more and more exhausted all the time,” he said. “…It would be much easier for us to throw apartment units in and forget all of this. And that’s what we forget in this country because we don’t care enough to support agriculture in the right way because we’ve never been short of food.”

And then there are the lawns

Farmers aren’t the only ones who rely on irrigation. 

Hundreds of HOAs and subdivisions across the Treasure Valley source their water to keep their lawns and gardens green from irrigation canals and laterals. With only a relatively low monthly cost to pay the canal company for the upkeep and maintenance of their section of pipes, thousands of Treasure Valley homeowners can keep their gardens watered for months without spiking their drinking water bill from Suez. Paying for drinking water from the water company to keep lawns green can add over $100 to homeowners’ bi-monthly water bills.

When water runs short, a portion of the same source of water farmers are using to water crops is being diverted toward domestic use. 

Bob Boyno served as the water master in his Southeast Boise neighborhood for years. In this role, he coordinated with the New York Canal Boise Project to order water for the roughly 240 homes in his water association, managed schedules on when residents could water their lawns, and watched for users potentially abusing the water right by overwatering. It costs him $25 a year to get access to irrigation water. 

Bob Boyno in his Southeast Boise backyard, which is watered from the New York Canal. Photo: Margaret Carmel/BoiseDev

Boyno said that even though using the cheaper irrigation water to keep the neighborhood grass green is a nice perk, he doesn’t believe the Treasure Valley should sacrifice farming in favor of residential homes. 

“I think the farmers have first dibs,” he said. “I am just trying to keep my lawn green. That’s not going to save people’s life. We’re really conscious about not overusing the water.”

Although the subdivision only has a set amount of water they are allowed from the canal company, there is no way to measure if residents are overwatering unless you see someone’s yard flooding. Boyno said it requires a system of residents being diligent about their use and water masters to keep an eye out for wasteful use to make sure the subdivision doesn’t use too much and potentially get in trouble with the canal company. 

He recommended residents water their grass at night to avoid evaporation and employ other methods to lower consumption. 

‘A year of conflict’

Both McPherson and Burns recalled a heavy drought in 1992 that stunned them both early in their time farming. Farming in a high desert always comes with its challenges. 

But, Burns says the difference moving forward will be how frequently these dry years hit. She said it was common to have a tough year once a decade, but as time moved on, she has seen dry years occur more and more frequently. She expects this year to compound on last year’s already dry conditions, setting the Gem State up for “a year of conflict” between water users of all types. 

“We will need to fundamentally look at what we’re doing,” she said. “It won’t be a happy time because nobody wants to change. Everybody always wants to stay the same.”

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Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel is a BoiseDev reporter focused on the City of Boise, housing, homelessness and growth. Contact her at [email protected] or by phone at (757)705-8066.

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