SCOTTSBLUFF – Relief for the farmers impacted by the collapse of an irrigation tunnel along the Fort Laramie-Gering canal could be weeks – and millions of dollars - away, according to Gering-Fort Laramie Supervisor Rick Preston.
During a stakeholders meeting Wednesday, Jul 24 at the University of Nebraska Panhandle Research Center, Preston told a crowd of several hundred affected by the collapse, that the original repair idea, which was to install a 10 and a half foot pipe in to sleeve the canal, had fallen through and that the numerous agencies and contractors working on the collapse were working hard to figure out a temporary solution to get the water flowing, as soon as possible.
“What happened was we had to back away from that (original idea), which was heartbreaking,” Preston told the assembly. “We thought we had a solution and that we could have water back in four weeks. As it turns out, that’s not the case.”
Preston said the involved agencies are working to find a way to possibly pump water into the canal downstream of the break. He called the plan “a longshot,” but insisted it might be the only way the water comes back on this year.
“We do not have a permanent fix in place, so we have no choice but to spend money and time on a temporary fix,” he said. “This is a long shot, we don’t even know what’s in there. In a perfect situation, looking at 21 days before water gets back into system.”
And each one of those days will count, according to Dr. Xin Qiao, extension water and irrigation management specialist. He told the assembly that with every day that passes, the soil continues to dry out.
“The news is not so bad for sugar beets,” Qiao said. “For sugar beets, you can still retain yield at the very end, similar to 2011. This year, we’ve had 7.3 inches of rainfall. In 2011, we retained 60 percent of yield.”
The news wasn’t so good for other crops. Qiao told the producers that this is a critical time of the year for the corn crop, and it could be impacted significantly. According to him, farmers lose a higher percentage of their corn crop with each day that passes. If the water isn’t flowing in as little as two weeks, farmers could lose 80-90 percent of their crop.
“We’re in the most critical state of corn,” he said. “We use a lot of water every week. Our soil is not that good.”
Preston told the crowd that he understands the seriousness of the situation, and said there are a lot of good people working around the clock to get the water moving as soon as possible.
“These landowners are gamblers,” he said. “They lay their livelihoods and their futures, and their children’s futures, on the line every day. That’s their retirement, income and livelihood.”
PRIOR TO THE MEETING
When farmers in Goshen County and the local agricultural community as a whole, went to bed last Tuesday night none of them could have guessed what they would wake up to July 17.
They likely went to bed with fields of healthy crops, and considering that Wyoming isn’t facing a drought for the first time in recent memory, dreams of bountiful harvest. What those farmers woke up to, however, is an agricultural nightmare.
Sometime around 3 a.m. on Wednesday, July 17, part of a 102-year-old irrigation tunnel in a remote area south of Fort Laramie, collapsed.
It caused a breach upstream that washed out part of the Fort Laramie-Gering irrigation canal, but the impact was even worse downstream. It brought irrigation to a swift halt, and around 110,000 acres of farmland that rely on the canal suddenly had no water source.
According to Goshen Irrigation District Supervisor Rob Posten, the numerous state agencies working on the collapse had came up with a temporary solution to help producers this season.
“They’re going to try to put a 10-and-a-half-foot pipe through the tunnel, so we can get it going,” Posten said. “They’re in the process of doing that.”
That plan would have taken up to three weeks to implement, and each day without water equates to more crops lost along the canal.
Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon visited the site Friday, July 19, and said the collapse is going to have an enormous negative impact on local farmers.
“You can see there are a lot of people and a lot of land that is affected,” Gordon said. “We’ve been working carefully with Nebraska and others to try to figure out the fastest way to solve this. We’re going to do our best to get water back to all of these farms.
“It is a big deal. There are hundreds of thousands of acres and everybody has their crops in. We finally got some summer a few days ago, and now is when you need that water. This is going to be devastating. It really is.”
Gordon said he brought along some of the state’s best resources to help find a solution.
“I brought a bunch of our folks from the Department of Agriculture, our water specialist, homeland security – just to take a look at this and get an assessment,” he said.
Goshen County Board of Commissioners Chairman Wally Wolski, who resigned his post on Saturday, surveyed the site alongside Gordon and state senator Cheri Steinmetz. According to him, the collapse will have a huge impact on the county.
“It will have the biggest impact on Goshen County anything has ever had,” Wolski, said. “We’re going to do everything in our power and look at all of the options to see if we can get water back to the farmers.”
In the hours after the collapse, GID personnel shut off the water flow from Whalen Dam, and called on the Bureau of Reclamation office in Mills to shut off the flow from Guernsey Reservoir.
The GID used large water pumps to pump out some 13 miles of canal upstream from collapse. That water had to be gone before the damage could even be assessed, according to Bureau of Reclamation spokesperson Jay Dallman.
Steinmetz said the tunnel collapse will likely be an issue for more than producers. Steinmetz said she had talked with officials from Nebraska, who were worried that the loss of an irrigation source would result in a diminished sugar beet crop, which would temporarily shut down the Western Sugar processing facility in Scottsbluff.
“In talking with a Nebraska senator today, they are concerned that they won’t have enough sugar beets to run their factory if we don’t get any water to the crops,” she said. “The cascade effect through the business community, not only the agriculture community, will be catastrophic for all of our little communities along the North Platte River that are irrigated by this system.”
According to Steinmetz, the tunnel collapse is due to aging infrastructure – and that could become a problem all across the Cowboy State.
“It’s a catastrophic system failure,” she said. “It’s old infrastructure and it’s reminiscent of what is going on all across the state. The state really needs to start prioritizing our infrastructure. Not just irrigation, but within our municipalities as well because our infrastructure is aging out.
“It is imperative that the state prioritizes our spending because we take these systems for granted. They were built 100 years ago, or more. We live every day and benefit from them and we take them for granted.”
Steinmetz said that there are a lot of people working on the problem, and their main goal is to get the water flowing.
“We have a group of problem solvers on the ground who have not given up on getting water to their crops this year,” she said.
“It’s what we do in Goshen County when we have a crisis,” she said. “We all come together and we’re problem solvers and we look for a solution. My job is to support the irrigation districts as we move forward. When they find a solution, we need to come forward and support that with the help they need. The Bureau of Reclamation is doing their part, so as a state we can help with emergency funding and with our water development funding.”