Beaverhead County Irrigators Take Reduced Allotments Amid Dry Conditions

This essay was written by Big Sky Watershed Corps member Chris Carparelli, who is working with the Beaverhead Conservation District. It’s the first in a series we’ll be posting from BSWC members across the state, as they learn about their areas and try to make positive impacts for conservation. For more about the Big Sky Watershed Corps, go here.

Last Tuesday the Joint Board for Clark Canyon Water Supply Company and East Bench Irrigation District met to set final allotments for the irrigation season. At their March 10th meeting they set tentative allotments at 2nd order reductions, because it’s been a very warm and dry start to 2015 in Beaverhead County. Among the key considerations for allotment decisions are the August end of month (EOM) reservoir storage forecasts, which are provided by the Bureau of Reclamation (USBR). At the March tentative allotment meeting the debate was whether to set allotments at 1st order reductions or 2nd order reductions. The decision to set them at 2nd order was contentious, but ultimately was reached because (a) the snowpack above the reservoir (particularly in the Centennial Valley) was far below average for early March, (b) the precipitation forecasts for the rest of March did not look promising, and (c) the thought was that it would be better to set allotments low initially and raise them later if moisture conditions allowed, rather than giving producers late notice about further reductions at the April final allotment meeting.

The continuation of warm and dry conditions in March reduced snowpack to almost nothing in the Centennial Valley, which reduced the “Most Probable” August EOM storage with 2nd reductions forecast by about 50% compared to the previous forecast. This triggered debate as to whether final allotments should be set at 2nd order or 3rd order reductions. Ultimately they were left at 2nd order reductions due in part to the aforementioned reluctance to give late notice of reduced allotments.

Some irrigators couldn’t understand how the forecast changed so drastically in one month. There was confusion, frustration, and even suspicion in the room. The presence of a zero (in this case for Centennial Valley snowpack) in a modeling equation can have a significant effect on the model output. Promoting awareness among irrigators of the historical accuracy of USBR’s water supply models, and the relationship between unprecedented climatological conditions and model uncertainty will be critical for maintaining the irrigators’ trust in USBR and other data providers. It is also imperative to continually strive to maximize the usability of observed water supply data for irrigators. This requires working with them to identify which datasets and formats are most helpful for them in their decision-making process, keeping the suite of data that is provided to them consistent, and eliminating datasets that only muddy the waters from presentations.

One helpful way that USBR conveys data is to compare the current year to previous years with similar conditions. This year’s climate and reservoir storage conditions were compared with 2001. That year was significant because it was the beginning of a multiyear drought that culminated with the East Bench unit not receiving any water for irrigation in 2004. As one irrigator told me “With all those dry years in a row, we just couldn’t get caught up in terms of storage.” One year without irrigation can break an operation around here.

A question that came to mind during the meeting was “Based on the experience of those dry years in the early 2000s, is there anything that could have been done differently in 2001, 2002, and 2003 that might have prevented the shutoff in 2004?” Unfortunately this question is nearly impossible to answer due to the fact that the current contract between the Joint Board and the Bureau of Reclamation – which contains the current operational drought management plan – was not in existence during that period. Balancing long term and short term considerations is one of the most difficult aspects of the decision-making process in agriculture.

At the end of the meeting, pulse crops were brought up as a potential water efficient alternative that could be strategically rotated in during dry years. Despite the fact that Montana is a leader in the pulse crop industry, barriers exist to their growth in Beaverhead County. In order to make pulse crops an option for skeptical producers, it will be necessary to explore suitability for this environment, market development, and profitability. Packets with pulse crop market information from the Montana Department of Agriculture were made available to the irrigators and there will be an effort undertaken by the Beaverhead Watershed Committee to explore economic and environmental barriers.

After the meeting, three irrigators responded to the pulse crop discussion. The first stated that pulse crops are only viable if they improve the bottom line. The second stated that some Beaverhead County producers had experimented with pulse crops in the 1980’s, but that bugs had ruined the crops. He added that “It’ll never work because guys won’t change.” And the third asked for the market information packet.

Beaverhead County producers will only take the leap of faith of trying a new crop if they feel that the potential rewards outweigh the risks. In this case profit is the primary reward, and the risks are the unknown suitability for our environment, and unproven/undeveloped markets and infrastructure. In order to address market barriers, it will be necessary to simultaneously cultivate interest among both growers and investors that can help develop markets and the infrastructure. The demand for pulse crops overseas is growing, but the market may also end up being in our own back yard as cattle feed. Others may identify the potential rewards as improving crop water allocation, soil health, and economic resilience to drought (which are all interrelated).

But it’s unlikely that pulse crops will take off in Beaverhead County if producers are asked to try something new based on rewards that non-producers have identified, especially if those rewards don’t resonate with them. It must also be acknowledged that research of the economic and environmental barriers to pulse crop growth in Beaverhead County may yield the conclusion that they have little merit as a strategic crop alternative.

This year is shaping up to be a very tough dry year. If it continues this way, there is no doubt that the whole community will feel the impacts. While it will be an uphill battle to try to improve drought resilience in the Beaverhead watershed, it is encouraging that there is no shortage of tools in our toolbox.