The Gering-Ft. Laramie-Goshen canal ordinarily carries water from the North Platte River to irrigate more than 100,000 acres in eastern Wyoming and western Nebraska. But last Wednesday, part of a 102-year old concrete tunnel on the canal collapsed, blocking that water. Wednesday, an overflow crowd packed a Scottsbluff meeting room to hear an update on the situation.
Gering-Ft. Laramie Irrigation District General Manager Rick Preston said officials are working on a temporary fix which will involve working into the tunnel, inserting steel ribs covered with metal plates and grout, hoping to clear a path to resume the flow.
“This is a long shot. We don’t even know what’s in there. In a perfect situation, you’re looking at 21 days before we can get water back into the system,” Preston said.
Gering–area farmer Preston Stricker said he’s coped with water shortages before, but never a complete cutoff. “The effects? Nobody’s ever tried this, so we don’t know yet. But it could be devastating, with no rain and the heat the way it generally is at the end of July, the first part of August. Corn’s in its pollinating stage within the next week to 10 days, and a very, very critical time, so the yield drag could be tremendous,” Sticker said.
Xin Qiao, a University of Nebraska irrigation management specialist, said that if corn doesn’t get any irrigation water by mid-August, that could cut yields by 80-90 percent.
In addition to how long the outage will last, other questions include who will pay for repairs, and how much, if any of the losses will be covered by crop insurance.
From the Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation:
According to a Goshen Irrigation District news release, during the early morning hours on July 17, an apparent collapse in a tunnel on the Fort Laramie Canal, about one and a half miles south of the town of Fort Laramie, caused water to back up and breach the canal bank upstream of the tunnel. The Fort Laramie Canal provides irrigation water to approximately 107,000 acres in Wyoming and Nebraska served by the Goshen and Gering-Fort Laramie Irrigation Districts and the Wright and Murphey Ditch Company.
Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation Vice President/Goshen County Farmer Cole Coxbill says the magnitude of the tunnel collapse is devastating. “In 13 miles, the water in the canal rose by four feet in just a half hour,” he explained. “It just went from bad to worse as the severity of the washout and tunnel collapse was discovered. The crew’s quick action and response to get the canal shut down as soon as they did saved additional destruction.”
All hands are on deck to determine a plan to repair the tunnel and canal to restore service. “Tunnel experts are onsite as well as engineers, legislators, irrigation district board members and other interested parties,” Coxbill said. “Today, Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon toured the damage and is in touch with and working with Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts.”
To put the scope in perspective, Coxbill explained the size of Tunnel 2; the tunnel that collapsed. “Construction started in 1916 and finished in 1917. It is 2,160 feet long; 140 foot to 180 foot below ground and it is a 14 foot by 14 foot concrete tunnel,” he explained. “The cave in blocked it off totally and backed the water up in the canal washing out a good quarter mile of the canal. All of this is about 13 miles from the diversion dam on the river and the canal’s length in Wyoming alone is 85 miles.”
According to Coxbill, a state economist gave an initial forecast guess of a $60 million direct economic impact to Wyoming and Nebraska. “That doesn’t include the turnover effect,” Coxbill explained. “That is the direct economic impact the loss of irrigation water will have on our states.”
There are approximately 52,000 acres in Wyoming impacted with the loss of irrigation water. “Farmers are all in at this point in the season,” Coxbill stated. “All our chips are on the table and now we face the outlook of no irrigation water.”
“We are hoping to have some more answers as the irrigation boards meet again tomorrow to discuss what the tunnel company found and what they think,” he said.
“The devastation and reality of no water is still setting in and on how tragic this can and will be to the farmers and the community,” Coxbill concluded.