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For the week of  September 5 - 11, 2001


South county farmers squeak through drought

For some, the season was a disaster

Express Staff Writer

In the 118-year history of their ranch in Picabo, the Kilpatricks/Purdys have had their water from Silver Creek turned off only once, until this year.

Bud Purdy said his irrigation water was cut off at the beginning of August.

When even the oldest water rights fail to see a farmer through a growing season, it is a good indicator of how bad this year’s drought has been.

Another indicator of the drought’s intensity is the number of alfalfa cuttings or harvests farmers have been able to grow.

Carey farmer Shirl Reay can get three cuttings of alfalfa in a good year. This year he got one cutting and a fraction of a second.

Yet another way to judge the damage from this year’s drought is to look at the grazing for cattle.

Carey rancher Inge Molyneux said that the fall feed ranges have suffered and that ranchers are bringing their cattle in early.

"But there’s nothing here for them to feed on either," she said.

Unable to irrigate pasture to feed their cattle, ranchers will have to use hay for feed. And with the alfalfa harvest as poor as it has been this year, "hay prices are really high now," she said.

Picabo rancher Katie Breckenridge said grazing for cattle has dried up earlier this year than last.

Those who don’t have the water to irrigate pastureland may have to sell their calves up to a month earlier, she said.

"Selling a month earlier means a major difference in a calf’s weight, between 100 and 125 pounds less," she said. And less weight means less money.

Some farmers and ranchers have been able to do OK this season, because they not only have surface water rights, but ground water rights. That is, they pump water from wells.

The Molyneuxs grow alfalfa on land irrigated by surface water from the Fish Creek Reservoir, just like Reay. But unlike Reay, when the reservoir went dry in mid-July, they were not out of water. They were able to continue irrigating with pumps.

Whereas Reay did not get close to three cuttings of alfalfa, the Molyneuxs got all three.

The Purdys were also able to have a good growing season because of their ground water rights. They not only got four cuttings of alfalfa, they also were able to grow a crop of barley.

Breckenridge said that the downside to having well water is paying the price of the electricity to pump it.

"Our power bills for irrigation are up by a third," she said. "That has virtually kicked out what could have been profit."

If the drought continues this winter, the kicking will be a lot harder next summer.

The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.