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Swaths of the country have baked this summer under hot and dry conditions, making it tougher to keep crops growing and livestock healthy. In some cases, state governments are stepping up work with their agriculture sectors in response.
To help farmers deal with drought and prepare for the hotter and drier weather expected in the U.S. during future years, states around the country are moving ahead with a variety of new spending, programs and policy changes focused on their agriculture sectors.
The hot and dry conditions affecting the country this summer vary in severity from place to place. But as of last week, 234 million acres of crops were weathering drought conditions and 42 states were in some level of drought, according to the National Drought Monitor.
Here’s a look at the work happening in three states:
Covid Relief Funds
As the West is experiencing its worst drought in more than 1,200 years, according to studies, Utah is using American Rescue Plan Act funds to help its farmers optimize their water use.
Under the state’s Water Optimization Program, the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food recently announced it is distributing $25.5 million to 140 recipients–including farmers and water conservancy districts.
Eligible projects include lining canal beds to stop seepage in the soil, updating headgates and water valves to be more automatic and precise and updating irrigation systems, according to Bailee Woolstenhulme, a spokesperson for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food.
“The implementation of any technology that helps optimize the use of water on farms is considered,” Woolstenhulme said in an email to Route Fifty.
The Water Optimization Program was initially funded in the 2019 legislative session to reduce water consumption while maintaining or improving agricultural production. Projects completed with the initial round of funding have saved seven billion gallons of water, according to the Department of Agriculture and Food.
In Utah, agriculture accounts for 75% of the state’s water use, according to Gov. Spencer Cox’s office.
Last year, some Utah farmers reported that they lost two-thirds of their income due to drought, as they saw only 10% of their typical crop yield, Woolstenhulme said. Many livestock farmers had to sell their animals as a feed shortage and high hay prices made caring for the livestock difficult.
This year, this situation has slightly improved, Woolstenhulme said. With helpful storms last fall, a better snowpack over the winter and some good rains this year, Utah hasn’t seen dramatic cuts to water availability like it did last year.
That’s not to say all is well for farmers across the state.
“Some parts are doing okay this year, but still not great, while others have had a devastating growing season,” Woolstenhulme said.
Farmers in southern Utah reported they “will have very little if any of their wheat and other dry crops” due to the lack of moisture and high winds in the region, Woolstenhulme said.
With the passage of its fiscal year 2023 budget, the state is allocating $500 million for “water infrastructure, planning, and management,” according to an announcement from Cox.
With swaths of Kansas parched by moderate to exceptional drought this summer, the state’s primary tool for helping farmers navigate an unusually dry year involves providing them greater flexibility with how much water they can use, explained Earl Lewis of the Kansas Department of Agriculture’s Division of Water Resources.
In Kansas, anyone who relies on non-domestic water use–domestic meaning a household well at a farmhouse or a lawn and garden well–is issued a water right by the state, Lewis said. For example, farmers who use irrigation require a water right, as do municipalities.
Each water right holder typically has a maximum amount of water they are authorized to use in a year, Lewis said.
But under the state's "multi-year flex account" initiative, water rights holders are given a five-year allocation, which allows them to exceed their annual limit in a dry year and make up for it by using less water in a wetter year.
“And so we're getting into a year like this where it’s really dry, and there's a lot of folks that are up against that limit or go over, and then get into trouble from a regulatory standpoint,” he said.
“It really helps protect them when they get into a year like this, and they're really up against a drought,” Lewis said.
The division has other long-term initiatives in the works, such as promoting upgraded irrigation technology and researching crops to better understand what can tolerate drier conditions, Lewis said.
Efficient irrigation systems—and efficient management of those systems—is particularly important in a drought year, especially in Kansas’ western and south-central regions, where the state is experiencing the worst drought conditions, Lewis said.
“With the drought year, where maybe we're not gonna see necessarily as much reduced use, … we're going to see better application of the water we have available,” Lewis said. “And so more water is going to get to the plant’s roots and get into the plant and be utilized rather than the loss to the atmosphere before it can be helpful to the plant.”
Planning for the Future
As of 2020, Iowa was one of the country’s top agricultural producers, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Now, as the state navigates its third consecutive year of abnormally dry conditions, three state agencies are collaborating to create Iowa’s first comprehensive drought plan—with the help of plenty of public input.
The Iowa Departments of Natural Resources, Agriculture and Land Stewardship and Homeland Security and Emergency Management hosted a series of public meetings to hear from residents about what they’d like to see in the plan, according to Tim Hall, the DNR’s hydrology resource coordinator.
One takeaway from the feedback the state is getting is that farmers want a one-stop source for objective, up-to-date information that can help them plan their planting and harvest.
“There's a lot of information out there, and you just have to know where to go look for it. So what we're hearing from people is, can we get that all pulled into one place so we can get to it easily?” Hall said.
To build a drought preparedness plan from scratch is a balancing act, Hall said. For example, even if dairy farmers have all the water they need to care for their livestock, it doesn’t necessarily matter when the cheese plant doesn’t have the water it needs to use the milk.
“We have to be careful how we work through issues of water shortages–or potential water shortages—to make sure the whole system doesn't fall apart,” Hall said. “So that's why the effort we're doing is not just the DNR and the way we see water resources. … [it includes] the Department of Agriculture, and county emergency managers, and all of those groups that are coming to these meetings because they have a very significant stake in the game.”
Molly Bolan is the assistant editor of Route Fifty.