Picabo Livestock Co. farm manager Pat Purdy

Picabo Livestock Co. farm manager Pat Purdy, pictured here, has employed new technology to monitor his water usage—one of many necessities to maximize dwindling water resources.

With this year’s drought cycle overlapping with disrupted supply chains caused by COVID-19, farmers and ranchers across Blaine County have had to get creative.

Long before U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue designated Blaine, Camas and Custer counties as “primary natural disaster” drought areas two weeks ago, however, many farmers—some with the help of local conservation organizations—had already adapted their growing techniques to weather the challenges ahead.

Today, the Nature Conservancy is working with growers from Bellevue to Shoshone to adopt better water conservation practices primarily dealing with soil health, according to Mark Davidson, director of conservation initiatives at the Nature Conservancy.

“That means converting to no-till farming, changing crop rotation and giving soil time to rebound after years of conventional farming practices,” Davidson said.

By minimizing ground disturbance, no-till farming, or zero tillage, boosts the soil’s organic matter content and its capacity to absorb and retain water. Brothers Dan and Brian Ratliffe, who lease hundreds of acres of farmland around the Bellevue Triangle, are two growers exploring the regenerative farming technique.

“When you plow, you’re disrupting the soil and essentially drying it out,” said Dan Ratliffe. “So, we don’t do any tillage on the ground. We also try to maintain some kind of living plant in the soil at all times, so it’s not just bare dirt.”

The Ratliffes grow cover crops—plants intended for soil protection rather than harvest—to help water penetrate into the ground instead of running off the field into ditches.

“We always have plants there to help trap snow and retain moisture. That also makes it so we don’t have to irrigate as early, come spring,” Dan Ratliffe said.

According to Ratliffe, no-till farming is unusual in the Bellevue Triangle, though it’s picking up speed in the Magic Valley.

“In the last five years of adopting this practice, we’ve noticed a huge increase in our soil health and nutrient management. We’re not having to apply synthetic fertilizer, because nitrogen is being cycled using the [cover crops],” he said.

One scientific approach the Ratliffes are using is keeping an eye on soil moisture levels with monitoring probes throughout the field—an added cost, but a good investment, Ratliffe said. They’ve also upgraded irrigation equipment from wheel and hay lines to center pivots.

“The upfront costs of these new systems is pretty significant, but we’re seeing an increase in crop production and managing water much more efficiently. We no longer have to pump [groundwater] all the time to get across the field,” he said.

Farther south, other farmers and ranchers are using the same innovative techniques on a larger scale to stretch their water supply.

Cooper and Fred Brossy, co-owners of Ernie’s Organics, are one example.

Situated on the banks of the Little Wood River west of Shoshone, the organic farm produces organic edible dry beans, small grains, winter squash, potatoes, seed crops and forage crops like alfalfa hay. The crops are rotated frequently to boost soil diversity.

To reduce water usage, the Brossys have also converted to center pivot irrigation, which uses less water pressure and horsepower than the more traditional overhead sprinklers that project water in large, rainbow-like arcs.

Cooper Brossy admitted that, like all sprinklers, center pivot irrigation still loses water to evaporation. But, he said, “it’s preferable to other forms in terms of overall efficiency.”

The 300-acre farm has also replaced its open irrigation ditches with piping to reduce water lost in conveyance, Brossy said. Other water conservation solutions are on the horizon, too—the farm is evaluating a more efficient drip-irrigation system, for example, and is currently piloting a web-based app to monitor real-time water flows passing through diversion headgates.

According to Brossy, one benefit of real-time diversion data is allowing District 37 Watermaster Kevin Lakey to instantly see where water is and isn’t available. If one water user decides to stop irrigating, for example, more junior users upstream or downstream could have more immediate access to that resource.

“The [app] is just one example of how we’re trying to be creative and proactive in monitoring our water usage and being more effective with the little water we do have,” Brossy said.

Like the Ratliffes, Ernie’s Organics also heavily relies on cover crops to retain water. Recently, the tall stalks of cereal rye that covered the fields over the winter and spring were rolled down to a thick, dead mat, through which seed and dry edible beans were planted using a no-till drill. The flattened rye crop not only acts as a natural weed suppressant as the beans grow, Brossy said, but it also creates a biomass-rich mulch layer that reduces irrigation demand and promotes a healthy, diverse ecosystem.

Along the Little Wood River, the soil health movement—including cover crops and no-till practices—is slowly catching on, according to Brossy.

“There’s been a large increase in cover crop acres in the region,” he said.

2020 Secretarial Drought Designations - All Drought

Farmers and ranchers in Blaine, Custer and Camas counties are eligible for emergency loans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture due to severe drought.

Mitigating overuse

According to Pat Purdy, farm manager of Picabo Livestock Company, surviving drought cycles comes down to drawing only as much water as his crops need.

“It’s about taking care of our water resource as carefully as we can, leaving as much in the stream as possible—that’s critical to us,” he said.

That means employing several progressive farming techniques. For one, Picabo Livestock installed a network of moisture sensors between 2-4 feet deep in its fields, Purdy said.

“I’ve got around 18 different fields that I monitor for moisture levels, which helps me make smart irrigation decisions. If we get low on water, I know exactly what’s going on down in the depths of the soil that you can’t really get to without digging a big hole.”

The network gives Purdy a good window into his soil’s moisture profile, telling him when irrigation is no longer needed to maintain crops. Purdy monitors his irrigation equipment as closely as he monitors the soil, too, keeping it as watertight as possible. Updating nozzles, for example, can cut down water use by 15-25 percent, Purdy said.

“For a long time, we farmers didn’t recognize that we needed to pay more attention to our sprinklers themselves—what nozzles to put on the center pivot, how to mount them, what height and so forth,” he said. “Fortunately, I’m seeing a lot of us recognizing needing to update to newer nozzle technology.”

Since Picabo Livestock Co. transitioned to no-till practices in 2014, Purdy said he’s seen remarkable growth in his soil’s water retention capacity.

“Getting that water to go into your soil and stay there, that’s the real secret,” he said. “The question is how effective of a sponge your soil is—does water run right through it, or does the soil capture that water to be used later in the season?”

Purdy said since phasing out tillage, he’s had to figure out other ways of controlling weeds.

“You have field damage from mice, badgers and gophers, big holes and bumps left that you do sometimes need to run over with equipment,” he said. “There are definitely some unique challenges to eliminating tillage, but overall we see it as a significantly positive step for us.”

Turning to technology

Last year, the Nature Conservancy executed an agreement with the owners of Cove Ranch south of Bellevue to take about 390 acres of farmland out of production, moving the water conserved from the field into the District 45 canal system where it was then applied toward an aquifer-recharge program.

District 45 Watermaster John Wright was one key player in maneuvering the water from the canal into one of several aquifer recharge pits on the eastern side of the Bellevue Triangle. The recharge pits allow water to percolate directly into Silver Creek, an important tributary of the Little Wood River, Wright said. Propelled by Silver Creek flows, the Little Wood then meanders through the desert, providing surface-water irrigation for water users in Richfield, Shoshone and Gooding.

Wright said the recharge program was piloted last year following years of conversation.

“What ends up happening is that when a farmer wants to turn off his diversion—let’s say he wants to dry up his field—he turns off the water and we deliver that to a recharge pit, and the water goes right into Silver Creek,” Wright said. “It’s becoming better understood that there are downstream benefits to recharging.”

Not all water users in Bellevue have viewed the recharge program as beneficial, Wright said.

“They might think, ‘Why isn’t that water delivered back into the river?’ It becomes a management question,” he said.

To keep all of his 120 surface water users on the Diversion 45 canal satisfied, Wright said the water needs to run at about 200 cubic feet per second. Right now, it’s flowing at 30 cfs—a 85 percent decrease. Only around three or four irrigators still have their usable water rights, he said.

“People with junior surface water rights are all shut off. If they have the capability, they’re using groundwater. If they don’t, they’re off and dry,” he said.

As a water user at the southern end of the Wood River basin, Cooper Brossy understands the intricate tie between the north and south watershed. This year’s water shortage is nothing new, he said, and drought cycles often show how the water system is being stretched to its limits.

“It’s very frustrating that we haven’t collectively arrived at a comprehensive solution with all the water users working together,” he said. “It’s striking, how we forget that everything is connected.”

He added that there’s a misconception that downstream, senior-water-right holders are overusing water.

“A lot of us have responded to water shortages by increasing our use of advanced technology and finding new, creative ways to share the resource amongst ourselves,” he said.

Wright, who was born into a large family ranch in Nevada, said he’s witnessed firsthand the generational clash of ideas between generations of farmers.

“There’s the old way of doing things, the ‘old guard’ that continues to farm as they’ve farmed forever, and then you have a newer generation that comes into town with new ideas,” he said. “We were doing our thing on our ranch, and suddenly we began to recognize that there are these new, exciting practices that we should pay attention to.”

Davidson said while there are several lingering conflicts between north and south-basin water users, which can result in drawn-out court battles in some years, the Wood River Water Collaborative is helping work out solutions and foster conversation. The end goal of the collaborative—spearheaded by the Wood River Land Trust, Trout Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy—is to implement a “master” water management plan for the entire watershed that will address the needs of farmers and wildlife alike.

“If we can arrive at a master plan,” Davidson said, “we might actually find our way through these droughts when they come every six, seven years.”

The Big Wood River

The Big Wood River has repeatedly set low-flow records this summer, stressing the canal system it feeds.

Email the writer: ejones@mtexpress.com

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