I adore the briny smell of the ocean. I love hearing the rainfall on the metal roof of my parent's house. I like dragging my fingers through the water as I speed along the Snake River in in my uncle’s jet boat. I'll never outgrow the need to flip my flip-flops off and run into the water at the reservoir, my toes sinking deep into the mud. Diving headfirst into icy water to experience that gasp of air as I reach the surface, my palms and scalp tingling. Yet, of all my water sensations, the one I love best is the sound of Rain Bird sprinklers pressurizing and then the tsk-tsk sound of the head rotating. There is just something about water through a sprinkler head: It’s fulfilling, satisfying even. Yet, this year, that satisfaction might be hard to come by.
I used to believe I was born in the wrong place, the land-locked desert of southern Idaho, but as I got older, I wondered if that geography is the reason I love the water. It's the scarcity of it. You see, not unlike most places, water is our lifeblood around here. But, unlike many places, that water rarely falls from the sky. Idaho averages 9 inches of rain a year, and those 9 inches are hoarded and carefully cataloged in our extensive reservoir system. There is a reason that in the west, there are attorneys who have built entire careers around water rights. Water is a business that allows the business of farming and ranching to happen.
Last weekend, I visited Black Canyon Reservoir, the reservoir that holds the water for my irrigation district on the western edge of Idaho. My husband, Craig, remarked how amazed he was to see water coming over the spillway. We know how lucky we are even to have water, let alone an excess. Craig was in Montana last month, and the ranchers in the southwestern part of the state expected the water to be shut off by the first of July. Our friends in southern Utah have cut their cattle herd by 40% in the last 18 months simply for lack of forage. Irrigation districts and canal companies are turning the water on later and planning to shut off sooner and at that, at only 75%-80% of normal. It's hard to grow much of anything in those conditions, let alone water-hungry corn and alfalfa.
A recent report released by the USDA Economic Research Service estimated that 20% of lands in the western United States and 10% of the alfalfa hay acreage countrywide were classified as experiencing "extreme or exceptional" drought. Texas, Oklahoma, Oregon, Nevada, Utah, Montana and New Mexico were the most impacted states.
These are sobering statistics. There will be few of us that take our water for granted this year. Though I despise the cadence of the oft-repeated prayer (why can’t we call it rain?), I’ll join the many congregations out West praying for “moisture.”
Erica Ramsey Louder is a freelance writer based in Idaho.