Several hundred Lincoln County farmers who rely on Magic Reservoir for irrigation stand to lose millions of dollars in crop loss this year because reservoir water reserves are now depleted.
“It’s exhausted,” said Shoshone resident Carl Pendleton, board chair of the Big Wood Canal Co. “It’s disturbing, but it’s Mother Nature.”
The irrigation year ended last Friday for water users of the canal company, which provides irrigation water to 35,000 acres of farmland in Lincoln County through the Richfield Canal and its laterals.
As of Friday, the reservoir contained only about 5,000 acre feet of water, 2.5 percent of its capacity of 200,000 acre feet. Observers of the reservoir have described it as a “giant mud hole.”
The reservoir relies mainly on the Big Wood River for filling, and even though the Big Wood is still running fairly high, its water is of no use to canal company.
“Any water that’s coming down the Big Wood now is being diverted to the Bellevue Triangle,” Pendleton said.
Farmers in the Bellevue Triangle draw water from the Big Wood River before it reaches Magic Reservoir.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the Big Wood flow near Hailey, upstream of the Bellevue Triangle, was measured Friday at 604 cubic feet per second and on Saturday at 557 cfs.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service reported this month that water is becoming scarce in many areas of the West because of below-normal snowpack throughout the Rocky Mountains.
The snowpack for the Big Wood River drainage area this year was about 68 percent of normal.
While Mother Nature had a hand in the water shortages plaguing the Big Wood Canal Co., the problem was exacerbated by the fact that the company had to drain 40,000 acre feet of water from the reservoir last fall so repairs could be made on a leaking hydraulic fluid line at the reservoir power plant.
“If we’d had that 40,000 acre feet in there, we could have run to August,” Pendleton said.
He said it’s difficult to estimate now what the crop loss will be, but said that “we’re talking millions of dollars.”
The dollar loss will come about for several reasons. Pendleton said farmers, anticipating a short water year, avoided altogether planting “high-value crops” such as potatoes, sugar beets and corn that are harvested late in the growing season.
Instead, most planted “small grains,” particularly barley, which is harvested earlier in the season.
Pendleton said farmers will still be able to harvest the grains but yields are likely to be lower and the quality of the crop, as measured by kernel or “head” size, will likely be low, resulting in lower payments per bushel.
Farmers raising alfalfa hay got a first cutting in already, but the yield of a second cutting in July will likely be low. Third and fourth cuttings are out of the question, Pendleton said.
“Ten days more [of water] would have assured a good second cutting crop,” Pendleton said.
He said pasture lands will suffer without water and farmers will likely have to cut back on their cattle herds.
Heavy rains this summer could help save some of the crops, but Pendleton thinks that’s unlikely.
“USDA thinks it might rain a lot, but it won’t,” he said.
Pendleton acknowledged that some farmers may be put out of business this year.
“We may have a few of those, if they hadn’t planned for it,” he said. “This is not the first time we’ve been through this. It’s about hoping your wife brings home enough from the other job.”