Water in the Desert

When most people think of desert, they think of Death Valley, where it doesn’t rain during some years. These same people refer to the Wasatch Front, where I make my home, as desert. We get 20 inches of rain per year. That’s about half as much as most places that are covered in thick forests.

I’m always impressed by the amount of rain and snow we get even in our dry years in this area. Still, most people call it a desert. It is true that we have to manage our water more than areas with higher rainfall, but we also pipe tons of water to other states. So, we as a state obviously have more water than we need.

Woods Cross Park Becomes a Lake
Our local park became a small lake, complete with kayakers during a recent hail storm.

I care about water in the “desert,” mostly because of my ranch. Dove Ranch only gets about 9-10 inches of rainfall per year. However, that number does not represent the additional amount of water on and under the land. Still, I have to work with what I have access to, and for the past year it has only been the 9-10 inches of rainfall.

What can you do with 9-10 inches of annual rainfall?

To answer that question, I look at the Qumran community that existed on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea. (Dove Ranch is on the northwestern side of the Great Salt Lake.) Even by the most conservative estimates, 20 people lived in Qumran at any given time. Some well-reasoned estimates put the population of Qumran at ten times that size.

Qumran
Qumran received four inches of rain per year and thrived for almost 200 years before wiped out by a Roman army. (Photo used with permission. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Qumran_L30_scriptorium.jpg )

Qumran received approximately four inches of rain per year. Some years it received no rain at all. On average years, Qumran received half as much as Dove Ranch, and yet it had a permanent population much larger than I ever would want on my ranch.

I think a thorough study of the water capture, use, and retention techniques used at Qumran, could teach me a lot about how to use the water on my land. Luckily, Utah has very friendly laws relating to the capture and use of runoff water, as long as it is not interfering with constructive downstream use by the larger community. You have to actually have a use for the water, and not just be monopolizing it for resale.

So, first I have to realize that 10 inches of rain falls on Dove Ranch each year. That alone, if properly used is 40 inches of water for 20 acres of land. Let that sink in. That’s enough water to irrigate crops and trees on almost three times the amount of land I intend to develop.

That’s all theoretical, of course. But, it gives a starting point for figuring out the potential of my currently sagebrush choked 80-acre ranch.

I know the amount of water falling on my ranch each year, but I have wondered about the amount of water under the ranch and how much watch runs across the land each year. On my latest visit to the ranch, I lucked out and drove right into a local cloudburst. About one hour of rain fell upstream and on my ranch itself. That’s not a lot of rain, and most of it was light rain, but I finally got to see the runoff on my ranch.

Cloudburst
One hour cloudburst at Dove Ranch that was not in the forcast.

The runoff event came as a surprise to me. I was several hundred feet away from the wash, tending to my Colorado pinyons. I heard the gurgling sound of water, and decided to go and investigate. It was potentially deadly because of the wet, slick clay banks surrounding the wash, but I got the best view of water on my ranch that I could have ever imagined.

Wash Runoff 1
The wash filled up with water in a mini-flash flood.

The water running through the wash was about 10 feet across and several inches deep. I was hoping for this kind of runoff through my ranch, but I didn’t know for sure. This is very exciting.

Wash Runoff 2
This runoff (or small flash flood) was caused by just a short cloudburst. I can only imagine the result of normal snowmelt, or a multi-day storm.

From what I’ve seen of rainfall during this drought year, I expect this kind of runoff during one-to-three months during a normal or wet year Spring thaw. Normally, a lot of snow builds up in this area. (At least in the mountains that provide runoff through my ranch.) I’m more excited than if I had found gold on my property.

Rainbow Over the Wash
Water can be found at the end of the rainbow on Dove Ranch.

With how valuable water is in the desert, especially to me on my ranch. I can begin to make jokes about gold really being found at the end of rainbows in the form of water in the desert.

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