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Farmers are trying new water-saving tech in Utah's drought

Tech conserves water, but also costs a lot of money
Posted at 3:00 PM, Jul 07, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-07 19:41:23-04

TREMONTON, Utah — Colton Russon can control the irrigation system with his phone.

The Tremonton farmer has installed a series of automated irrigation systems to water his organic corn and barley crops. Water sputters up and floods a section of field. Above the machine controlling the irrigation system is a small solar panel to give it electricity.

It's a lot different than how his father-in-law has watered crops.

"I've been doing it for 60 years and changing water takes a long time," said Richard Eakle. "Most nights, all night long. These boys now, they do it on their phone."

Eakle Enterprises installed the new technology last year, taking advantage of a matching grant program offered by Utah's Department of Agriculture & Food. It cost about $300,000 to put in but has resulted in instant savings in time and water.

"I think it was worth it for us," said Russon. "It saved in water... a third of it we’re able to save. We’re able to go across the land quicker and it’s a whole lot easier."

Agriculture is one of the top water users in the state but has not been immune from the effects of Utah's mega-drought. Farmers and ranchers have had their water shares cut and some are dumping high-water using crops, said state agriculture commissioner Craig Buttars.

"Some areas like the Weber Basin have experienced up to a 40% cut in their water for irrigation this year," he said in an interview Thursday with FOX 13 News.

There are new technologies available to help agriculture producers with water conservation. But it does not come cheap. The Utah State Legislature has started spending more for incentives to get them to switch. In 2019, lawmakers budgeted $3 million for "agriculture optimization" programs. But when the Great Salt Lake started drying up and the drought became more prominent, that number jumped to $70 million for incentives in 2021.

"Not all people realize that it does take water to grow food and we all like to eat," said Commissioner Buttars.

The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food has funded 140 water optimization projects across the state so far, spending about $30 million. They are getting ready to open another round of grants to agriculture producers, offering a 50-50 split on the cost.

The Bear River Canal Company, which operates one of the largest systems in the state, is taking advantage of some of the funding. The company covers 68,000 acres and 126 miles of canals from Bear Lake to the Great Salt Lake.

"We're trying something unique. We’re implementing something that’s different than a lot of other systems in the West," said Trevor Nielson, the canal company's general manager. "The fact that we’re implementing automation with the hope of eventually having an autonomous system."

The company has started replacing some gates on its canals with automated systems. It used to require someone to go out and change them based on looking at what the water flow looked like. Sometimes the canal worker got it right, sometimes they got it wrong. Now, they can measure flows by looking at their phones and the system can adjust automatically.

The automation can help save water, but also ensure that farmers across the area get a more equitable share, said Charles Holmgren, a farmer who serves on the canal company's board.

"If you can’t measure the water, you can’t manage the water. This gives us opportunity to measure water so we can manage the resource," he told FOX 13 News.

It will cost about $7 million to fully implement the automated system, which is being done as they secure funds to do it. The Bear River Canal Company is also lining canals with a material similar to innertubes and in some cases, piping them to help conserve water.

"Our seepage losses aren't as great," Holmgren said of the advantages to canal lining. "Our losses aren’t as a great so we can get water to the end-users at the far reaches on the canal."

Lining and covering canals costs money, but not as much as developing new systems and sources of water. The hope is it all helps to keep more water in Bear Lake as storage for even leaner times.

"Utah is a desert state and we don’t have copious amounts of water," said Nielson. "Ag is a big user of the water that humans have available in the state. You can look at it as a blame game or you can look at it as an opportunity."

Commissioner Buttars said he believes that as agriculture producers are able to show water savings, lawmakers on Utah's Capitol Hill will continue to fund incentives to get more people to implement water-saving tech.

"Farmers are usually the first to take a cut in water allocation. A lot of times that’s at the expense of their own livelihood," he said.

Nielson said it is worth the investment.

"This is some of the best tax dollars being spent in the state right now," he told FOX 13 News. "What I'm able to accomplish with these grants is saving water. It is making a difference not only for farmers, but the general citizens as well."

To find out more about agricultural water optimization grants offered by Utah's Department of Agriculture and Food, click here.

This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake—and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late. Read all of our stories at