Short On Water, Farmer Tries Desert Ducks

Sep 16, 2015

For the first time in state history, Nevada water officials are preparing to restrict groundwater pumping for the Smith and Mason valleys. Farmers and ranchers there are already operating on thin margins because of the drought. Our reporter Julia Ritchey visited the agricultural community of Yerington to see how one farmer is coping.

"We'll start here; it's as a good as anywhere. You'll be able to see, like mine,  I have fields that have nothing growing just basically weeds because of no water... It’s basically fallowed because you can’t irrigate it."

Darrell Pursel is driving his blue pick-up around his dusty 300-acre farm in Yerington while his Labrador Storm balances on a hay bale in the back. A fifth generation farmer, Pursel says he hasn’t been able to grow hardly any alfalfa this year.

"In a normal year, I used to grow about 1,000 tons, may have been a little more or less," he says. "In a year like this, I'll have a 100 tons."

Alfalfa is a staple crop for many farmers in this region, which has been hard hit by drought. It's for this reason he's decided to try something new.

Pursel walks over to two bird coops he built by hand with about 200 ducks and several hundred more pheasants inside.

"Because I'm not able to irrigate and grow crops, I had to get into something or try something," he says. "I had the birds; I had the incubator; I had a way to do something besides just the norm and so I went for it."

It's an odd sight: ducks in the desert, but Pursel hopes to turn part of his property into a hunting and gaming preserve to make a little extra money. And he's not alone in trying to diversify his income stream.

Take a short drive through Yerington and you'll see fields of lettuce, onions, garlic and other crops replacing the alfalfa hay typically grown this time of year.

"The easiest way to kind of gauge what's going on right here is that's it's so dry, it's so parched over here, and literally the river has dried up here in town."

That's Bert Bryan, manager of the Walker River Irrigation District. He's in charge of nearby reservoirs, which store the surface water that feeds local irrigation ditches and pipelines.

"We're definitely [in] the lowest consecutive years as far as irrigation-wise that we've seen in the history of the district," says Bryan. "And the district has been around since 1919."

Pursel says in the last three years, he's seen his surface water allotment go from 80 percent to 60 to just 8 percent this year.

Farmers like Pursel have been able to stay afloat by pumping groundwater from supplemental wells. These wells serve as a last line of defense for farmers when reservoirs are low. But even that's in jeopardy as state regulators have become increasingly concerned about the water table. A curtailment order is expected sometime next month.

"My estimation, and most everybody in the ag community, is it's going to be real low because they don't know what's going to come," says Pursel. "So they're going to probably do a 75 percent curtailment, or more, I don't know it's hard to say."

"A curtailment is based on a sliding scale..."

That's Jason King, the Nevada state engineer with the division of water resources. He's in charge of managing the groundwater, and says it’s too soon to say how much water will be curbed.

"So the more river flow we have, the less groundwater curtailment we will have," he says. "Yes, 75 percent is a possibility if we have a 20 percent or less river flow next year. But, no, there's nothing magic about 75, it all depends on what kind of river flows we have next year."

The state began talking about restrictions with farmers more than a year ago after seeing the aquifer drop by as much as 8 feet in the Mason Valley. 

"The whole idea is to reduce the amount of water pumped from those basins so we wouldn't see the water table decline like we have the last few years."

An earlier curtailment order issued by the state was challenged in district court this year by a group of farmers and never implemented. The state is still pursuing the order, but trying to give farmers more notice.

There’s been a lot of criticism lately that the state has not done enough to prevent over-pumping, but King disagrees with that.

"Since the mid-1980s, the climate has been such that we haven't seen as many wet years on the Walker, and it's been an imperfect storm or perfect, but it has nothing to do with our inaction," says King.

Many in the agricultural community believe a curtailment order will be akin to a death sentence for ranchers and farmers, who have already voluntarily cut back on their well usage.

"It's amazing that they just flush you down the toilet and say, 'Goodbye,'" he says. "It's going to just be devastating to the community, let alone the farmers and ranchers who’ll probably end up broke because of it."

Pursel says the drought has already taken a severe toll on his finances.

"I've taken a 90 percent cut in gross revenue," he says. "And I don't know, the ducks, I may lose my butt on. I don't know if I’m going to make a dime on them."

He says he's had to borrow money from his life insurance policy — and yet, he hasn't given up hope.

"The one thing that most people don't understand agriculture and farmers: We're pretty damned optimistic," says Pursel. "If we weren't optimistic, we'd have given up a long time ago."

Pursel crouches in the duck pen to a cubby hole where he picks up two eggs, smiling as he holds out his hand to show them off. The ducks have mostly stopped producing eggs by this time of year, but he’s somehow managed to find a few more.