Drought has tightened water allotments for farmers in southwest Idaho.
By: Zach Kyle, Idaho Statesman
Like blood pumping into arteries, water flowed from siphon tubes and down the rows of mint at Drew Eggers Farms off of Black Cat Road south of Meridian, Idaho. Mint, a perennial plant, needs water in the spring to awaken and resume growing after the cold and dormant winter.
But tight new water allotments brought on by drought confront Eggers and other growers in the Boise Project's five water districts with tough decisions this spring. Most of them involve starving one crop to water another, or guessing how to best stretch water rations between now and harvest in October.
"I decided to postpone my first irrigation for 10 days or two weeks, gambling that the mint would be all right until then," Eggers said.
It's too early to say whether growers will face as severe a water shortage as they did in 2013, when allotments were even tighter. Treasure Valley crops received heavy rain late that season for a yield-saving growth spurt before harvest.
The Board of Control, which delivers water to five districts from Boise to eastern Oregon, could increase allotments if high temperatures melt enough snow or storms dump enough rain. But those aren't guaranteed. So farmers are preparing for the worst.
"It's a big deal," Eggers said. "Water is important to us, just as important as seed and soil. When we have to scrounge or hold back water, and not give crops an optimal amount, it will hurt us in yields."
Last year, farmers in the Boise Project drew irrigation water without it counting against their allotment of 2.25 acre-feet until June 17. Dave Dixon, owner of Greenleaf Farms in Greenleaf, said growers were surprised when this year's allotment was set April 16, two months earlier than last year, at 1.65 acre-feet.
"This tremendously impacts us," said Dixon. "The 1.65 feet starting April 16 is not enough water to raise many of the higher value crops, such as peppermint, onions and sugar beets."
Farmers expecting to irrigate for longer from river flows had already planted high-water crops such as onions and sugar beets, said Steve Martineau, who works 1,500 acres south of Nampa near Bowmont. Many of those crop decisions were made before growers knew an early allotment was on the way, he said.
"We kept seeing a lot of snow over there on top of the Trinities," Martineau said. "We knew a lot of the low (snowpack) was gone, but we were sure shocked when there was no river flow to speak of."
Managing the low allotment isn't the only challenge, said Garth Taylor, agriculture economist for University of Idaho.
The lack of advance warning cuts into farmers' flexibility on what crops they plant to adjust to the low allotments, he said.
"If they would have known this last year, they could have said, 'OK. I'll leave this fallow, or only plant grain here and use my water on my onions and my silage,' " Taylor said. "But this becomes dramatic when they already have their onions and potatoes planted."
Growers in drought-stricken regions in Oregon and California are leaving ground fallow to save their scant water for smaller acreages. Dixon hasn't talked to any Boise Project growers planning to leave ground fallow, but many are considering growing more grains, which need less water.
Dixon has already planted 900 of his 1,100 acres, leaving him with few options. His mint has been in the ground for years. His high-water crops — sugar beets and onions — are also higher-profit crops than wheat or barley.
"We tried to be conservative when we planted, and we already have pretty minimal acres in onions and sugar beets," he said. "Those are crops we really rely on financially."
Like many farmers, Martineau has contracts with buyers to plant certain acreages of certain crops. That means he has agreed to deliver sugar beets — a water-intensive crop — as well as beans, carrots seed and wheat.
"We signed contracts with some of these companies over two months ago, or longer," Martineau said. "It isn't like we knew we were going into a low-water year when we signed these contracts. So it makes it very tough to make a decision on who you cut out."
Hay and alfalfa have quietly become bulwark crops for Idaho, Taylor said. Together, they brought in $605 million in cash receipts in 2014, trailing only potatoes ($885 million) among Idaho crops. Idaho farmers keep nearly half of their alfalfa to feed their own beef or dairy cattle.
As much as half of all alfalfa grown in Idaho never heads to market, Taylor said. Farmers often use their alfalfa to feed their own beef or dairy cows, reducing the expenses needed to support Idaho's $5.7 billion beef and dairy industries.
"Alfalfa is by far and away the largest crop throughout the West in terms of value," Taylor said.
It's also thirsty. With more than 2.2 average water-feet applied per acre, alfalfa consumes nearly twice as much water as potatoes, wheat and corn. In 2012, hay and alfalfa accounted for 34 percent of Idaho's 2.8 million irrigated crop acres, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The next highest crop was wheat with 19 percent of all irrigated acres, followed by potatoes at 13 percent.
Less water will mean less alfalfa, though the loss will be softened by the fact that the first cutting of the season is by far the most productive, Taylor said.
"When water gets short, they get two or three cuttings instead of three or four," he said.
In 2013, the Boise Project Board of Control set allotments at 1 acre-foot in April. The board increased the allotment to 1.4 in June. Water deliveries stopped Sept. 5, weeks before crops are usually harvested.
Some growers bought unused allotments from other farmers. Those with wells paid to pump supplemental water. Martineau said he paid $3,000 to $4,000 per month for electricity to pump water for an 80-acre plot. Eggers is already pumping well water, and Martineau expects to soon.
"Your profit is tied up in paying Idaho Power to get that supplemental water," Martineau said. "Your profit goes right back into the crop. It will be tough to make money this year."
Other farmers, such as Dixon, don't have wells. He hopes more water will become available later in the season.
"It's going to be a hard year, but I don't think we're doomed yet," he said. "The reservoirs have water in them. The high (mountain) elevations look awfully white. If we get 60 percent more water later this year, that makes a big difference."
Idaho agriculture, overall , is drought-proof, Taylor said.
Drought conditions for 11 of the past 15 years haven't prevented Idaho farmers from increasing net profits for the past five, including a projected record high $9.7 billion in sales last year.
Lower yields in one area hold down supply — and boost prices — around the state, Taylor said.
"The farmers always say, 'We're overproducing.' That means the prices are going down in the tank. Gee, have you ever heard a farmer say, 'We're underproducing'? No. The big picture is that drought is good for farmers."