Tunnel collapse prompts formation of emergency water account

CHEYENNE – The collapse of the No. 2 tunnel along the Fort Laramie-Gering Irrigation Canal in July 2019 threatened hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland in Wyoming and Nebraska, ruined an untold number of crops and brought the region’s biggest industry to a sudden halt for several months. 

While the United State Department of Agriculture approved the losses as insurable and the Goshen Irrigation District was able to cobble together enough resources to get the water flowing again by August, there was one area exposed by the collapse that couldn’t be remedied quickly – no one person or agency was prepared for a disaster of that magnitude. There were no plans or protocols in place to help farmers or the GID in the wake of the canal running dry.

The Wyoming Legislature sought to remedy that this legislative session. House Bill 81, which was passed into law on March 12 with a 24-1 vote by the Senate, established an emergency water project account of $5 million for “repair, replacement or maintenance that is required for irrigation infrastructure which is rendered permanently inoperable due to an act of God including fire, earthquake, hurricane, storm or other similar natural disaster or phenomena or an unseen or impending natural or man-made event that requires immediate action to prevent a threat to or loss of life or property,” the bill said. 

The bill also established authorization procedures for emergency grants and loans and provided a continuous appropriation to maintain the account. Half of the money will come from the state water development account, and the other half will come from the strategic investments and projects account. 

During a press conference last week, Gov. Mark Gordon said the bill gives farmers, ranchers and irrigation districts a way to handle disasters such as the one the GID faced. 

“It’s a bill we worked very hard on,” Gordon said. “It provides mechanisms to address some of the issues that occurred last year with the Goshen Irrigation District and the funding. It provided a mechanism for continuing to replenish those funds and also provides an ability for farmers, ranchers and irrigation districts in other areas to be able to be proactive in how they address 100-year-old infrastructure. If it does fail, it’s catastrophic.”

Unfortunately, for the GID, it’s a reactive measure to the 2019 collapse and it won’t provide the GID with any assistance. 

“Unfortunately, it won’t help the Goshen Irrigation District right now, but we have a lot of aging infrastructure across the entire state,” Sen. Cheri Steinmetz said. “We realize this is unfortunately a problem that’s not going away, so we needed a way to respond.”

Steinmetz said she also worked to add a footnote to the state budget that would allow the governor $10 million in borrowing authority in the event of a disaster. 

“If there is a really big disaster, we have a few options,” she said. 

Steinmetz said she and other legislators have tried to help the GID in other ways. 

“We did amend the omnibus water construction bill to give them $200,000 for their planning and design for the permanent repair,” she said. “Depending on what goes on and how things look, they would be eligible to apply for water development funding because they’re now in the pipeline as far as designing and engineering. Usually that takes several years to get started. We’ve already advanced them through rehabilitation and restoration through that.” 

“I’m not done, quite frankly, working at the federal level either. I’m still working on that and I’m still pushing as much as I can to see if we get something to move there as well.” 


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