Initial canal fix fails, State of Emergency declared


FORT LARAMIE – Governor Mark Gordon declared a State of Emergency in Goshen County earlier this week due to the collapse of an irrigation tunnel in a remote area along the Fort Laramie-Gering canal that has threatened nearly 100,000 acres of farmland, and it looks like relief is still weeks – and millions of dollars – away.

Both the Goshen Irrigation District and Gering-Fort Laramie District held stakeholder meetings on Wednesday, July 24. At the GID meeting, which was held at Eastern Wyoming College, GID chairman Bobby Coxbill told the assembly, of several hundred people, that a group of tunnel experts from St. Louis is working on a temporary fix in order to get water moving this season. 

“The plan is that they’re going to make these ribs every four feet to make it safe,” he said. “Every time they put another rib in, they will anchor it to the cement, and start digging the cave-in out. They’re planning on working around the clock.” 

Coxbill said the tunnel workers will also pump in grout around the tunnel to further reinforce it. Once the ribs are in and the tunnel is clear, the water will flow. The temporary fix will cost an estimated $2 million, and the water could be flowing in 20 days or less. 

“We’re hoping, and we’re dreaming of success,” Coxbill said. “It could cave in again. There are so many bad scenarios that could be imagined – we don’t know. This company, they do this all the time. We have to hope for the best – it’s the only chance we’ve got.”

During the stakeholder’s meeting at the University of Nebraska Panhandle Research Center in Scottsbluff, Gering-Fort Laramie Supervisor Rick 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, wasn’t large enough to keep a suitable amount of water flowing. The temporary solution should have water flows near what farmers along the ditch are accustomed to.  

“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 4 weeks. As it turns out, that’s not the case.”

Each day without an irrigation source will be costly, according to Dr. Xin Qiao, Water and Irrigation Management Specialist and the UNL extension office. 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 for 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.”

The biggest question mark in both meetings was where the money to pay for the repairs will come from. The GID has secured funding for the temporary fix, but a long-term solution is expected to cost in excess of $10 million.

In a press release issued by the Governor’s office, Gordon pledged to deploy state resources to Goshen County “in an effort to provide assistance to farmers affected by a catastrophic irrigation tunnel collapse in Goshen County.” 

“The Governor signed an Executive Order for a Declaration of Emergency today, allowing him to deploy state resources to Goshen County as needed,” the release said. “The collapse occurred early in the morning of July 17 along the Fort Laramie-Gering irrigation canal west of Lingle and caused a large breach of the canal wall. The disaster inundated farmland near the breach and has left more than 100,000 acres of cropland in Wyoming and Nebraska without water during a critical period for growers.”

Gordon visited the site on Friday, along with representative from several local and state agencies. 

“The Governor and members of the executive branch met Monday morning (July 22) to analyze ways to provide state support to Goshen County and the Goshen Irrigation District,” the release said. “The Governor’s office is assembling resources to engage federal partners and is working with the Wyoming Department of Agriculture, the Wyoming Office of Homeland Security and the State Engineer’s Office to explore potential options for resources and assistance.”

At the meeting in Torrington, state treasurer Curt Meier, state senator Cheri Steinmetz, and state representatives Hans Hunt and John Eklund all addressed the crowd. 

Steinmetz told the crowd that funding will be tricky to secure, but said she is working on ways to make some money flow. 

“Nebraska can’t spend any money across their state lines, and our by-laws are similar and we can’t spend money into Nebraska,” Steinmetz said. “They have 51 percent of the acreage and we have 40 percent. Whether we can do something special because of this, I don’t know. It would take an act of the legislature. 

“Those are the things we’re looking at. You’re not alone. Everyone has come together, and for all of the problem solvers who are working very hard, we’re behind you 100 percent.”

An account has been set up at First State Bank for anyone who would like to donate to the effort. 

The University of Wyoming and UNL have worked together to build a website with information about the collapse, how to monitor crops and other key information.  To access those resources, visit go.unl.edu/canal

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