There are more than 100,000 acres of farmland in Nebraska and Wyoming with no access to irrigation water right now.
Around 3 a.m. on July 17, a 700- to 800-foot section of the three-tunnel system that delivers water from the North Platte River’s Whalen Dam to the Goshen/Gering-Fort Laramie Canal, collapsed south of Fort Laramie, Wyo. The canal was running full tilt – about 1,325 cubic feet per second, or 595,000 gallons of water per minute. Tons of dirt from the tunnel were flushed into the canal, effectively plugging it. Since the water could not flow down, it flowed out.
Just six minutes later, according to Goshen Irrigation District Manager Rob Posten, water broke through the banks of the canal. The force of the rushing water destroyed everything in its path, leaving behind a trench as wide as a football field from the canal to the North Platte River.
Water has been shut off at the Whalen Dam since the incident occurred in order to inspect and repair the tunnel. This has left 107,000 acres of cropland in Nebraska and Wyoming without irrigation water during a critical time in the growing season. Approximately 55,000 acres are affected in Nebraska.
Rick Preston, general manager of the Gering-Ft. Laramie Irrigation District, said construction crews are working around the clock to re-open the tunnel and rebuild the canal bank. So far, workers have shored up about the first 400 feet. Meanwhile, soil is being removed from above the tunnel, which is about 110 feet below ground, he said.
“We’re taking dozers, paddle scrapers and excavators and we’re moving all that dirt clear down to the top of the tunnel to try to lessen the safety risk as they’re working in the system,” Preston said. “So, actually what we’re doing, we’re just taking weight off the top of the tunnel so they have a little more safety in what they’re doing.”
Because of the sandy-gravelly soil, they need to gently slope the sides and create shelves to avoid further collapses. The result will be about a 500-by-500-foot hole by the time they reach the collapsed section, Preston said. The whole temporary repair project is estimated to take 20 days from when the work started on July 28 before the flow of water can resume.
Rob Posten, district manager of the Goshen Irrigation District, reported that the district hopes to have the Goshen County canal repaired by late August.
“The upside is, if we can get this dirt off the top of the tunnel, and they don’t run into any more issues, we might be able to gain two, possibly three days,” Preston said.
Crop insurance unknowns
As repairs continue on the tunnel that collapsed on the Goshen/Gering-Fort Laramie Canal, unanswered questions remain about whether crop insurance will cover crop losses stemming from the loss of irrigation water.
Due to the complexity of the Goshen/Gering-Fort Laramie situation, it is unknown if crop insurance will cover crop loss. Crop Insurance provides protection against “unavoidable, naturally occurring events.”
Several factors may have contributed to the tunnel collapse. According to a report by the National Weather Service in Cheyenne, Wyo., “precipitation has been upwards of 200-300 percent above normal for the past water year (Oct. 1, 2018 to present).” However, the tunnel in question was built in 1917 by the Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the structure. The Goshen Irrigation District and Gering-Fort Laramie Irrigation District were responsible for operating and maintenance of the tunnel.
A press release issued Aug. 8, by UNL economist Cory Walters and Extension educator Jessica Groskopf, explained that there’s going to be a lot of red tape, investigating and wide-ranging figuring before it’s determined if the tunnel collapse is covered by crop insurance.
According to USDA data, last year there were 375 cases of indemnity-only payments for failure of an irrigation supply, and more than 500 cases of indemnity payments with a month of loss. In this case, it will come down to the reason the tunnel collapsed.
“It’s not just if you’re farming south of Torrington or down by Gering, Nebraska,” said Shawn Madden of Torrington Livestock Markets in Wyoming. “Those people are all customers on Main Street in Scottsbluff and Torrington. I mean, these people are in financial peril.”
Paul “Cactus” Covello of Points West Community Bank said most agricultural operations run on a slim profit margin to begin with.
“There’s not much profit in corn, there’s not a lot of profit in cattle,” he said. “Most of that goes back to pay for their input costs, to make land payments, to put a little food on the table and hopefully have some to put in savings for a rainy day. The agricultural life is a lifestyle you’ve got to love, because it’s not ultra-profitable.”
Donors interested in helping farmers in Western Nebraska who are without water for their crops because of the canal breach can learn more and make donations to the Kearney Area Community Foundation at www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr or the Oregon Trail Community Foundation at www.otcf.org.
More information on the canal break is available through the UNL Extension Office at: https://extension.unl.edu/statewide/panhandle/canal-break/.
Jon Burleson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.