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A big dam deal: Buffalo Bill Dam expansion celebrated

in Agriculture/Energy/News/Recreation
1888

By Cowboy State Daily

The anniversary of the completion of one of Wyoming’s most impressive engineering feats was celebrated recently as Cody marked the 25th anniversary of the expansion of Buffalo Bill Dam.

The $132 million expansion project launched in 1985 raised the dam’s height from 325 feet to 350, increasing its storage capacity by 260,000 acre-feet.

The “Great Dam Day” on Aug. 17 celebrated the completion of the project with a number of activities that gave visitors a chance to stop by the dam and its visitor’s center.

Among the attendees was Bill McCormick, who served as the project manager for the expansion.

McCormick said one of the most challenging parts of the job was removing a large section of a mountain to allow for the expansion.

Project officials soon figured out that rock from the mountain could be used as “riprap” to line the reservoir’s shoreline, he said, eliminating the need to bring in the material from elsewhere.

“So it seemed very logical,” he said. “We had good granite right here and (workers could) take the rock from here.”

While the project was originally supposed to be completed in five years, various developments delayed completion, McCormick said.

“The estimated five years for the project actually took 11 as things were modified or problems came up or the design changed,” he said.

The dam today provides irrigation water for more than 90,000 acres of land in the Big Horn Basin, along with a 6-mile long reservoir that serves as a recreation area.

Irrigation canal repairs nearly complete, Goshen County to turn water back on

in Agriculture/Business/News
1895
Look back at how this water crisis began and see a view of the situation on the ground in Torrington with this report from Cowboy State Daily’s Robert Geha and Mike McCrimmon when the tunnel first collapsed.

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Tunnel crews cleared the Gering-Fort Laramie Irrigation Canal tunnel Monday, and water could start flowing to crops as early as later this week, Goshen County Irrigation District Manager Rob Posten said.

Full capacity irrigation, however, won’t be restored immediately, he added.

“We’ll go a little at a time until we get there,” Posten said. “It might take another week — it usually takes 7 to 10 days to bring the water into where we want it.”

Irrigation water was cut off to more than 100,000 acres of farmland in Goshen County and Nebraska on July 17 after the Gering-Fort Laramie Canal tunnel collapsed about a mile south of Fort Laramie.

Torrington Mayor Randy Adams said Posten’s announcement was well received around the community.

“Apparently there is no sidewall damage, which would have prohibited running water through it this year,” Adams said. “People in the community who’ve driven around the canal area have said the crops are looking better than expected.”

Prior to the U.S. Department of Agriculture stating Friday that crop losses caused by the canal collapse would be insured, the mayor said the incident could cost the community as much as $250 million during the next few years. Adams said he wasn’t sure how the USDA announcement would affect prior economic predictions, one of which predicted a total loss to crops that could cost Wyoming and Nebraska about $90 million.  

“The USDA is going to have to wait until those farmers harvest and turn in the crop, so they know how much they’ll pay out,” he explained. “I haven’t been a farmer for over 20 years, but crop insurance is basically a means for you to get back on your feet and plant the next crop. It’s better than getting nothing.”

Crop loss

Turning the irrigation back on could reduce overall crop loss, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln researcher said. Xin Qiao, an irrigation management specialist at the UNL Panhandle Research and Extension Center, produced a report in July detailing the potential crop losses in the area served by the Gering-Fort Laramie Irrigation Canal. The report predicted 100 percent loss of corn, more than 90 percent loss of dry edible beans and a 50 percent to 60 percent loss of sugar beets if the tunnel was not repaired by Aug. 13.

“I don’t think that number is accurate anymore,” Qiao said. “Any rain they got (since) could reduce the overall impact. It’s the total amount of rainfall that matters and the timing. I don’t have a concrete analysis at this point.”

At his research facility in Nebraska, Qiao said his team turned off irrigation to their own sugar beat plots after the canal collapsed to study the potential effects on the crop. Unfortunately, he said a recent hail storm killed the plots before he could observe the lasting effect on the plants of removing irrigation.

“I definitely think they won’t have that much loss from the original prediction,” he said. “My (new) prediction is it will be less, but I don’t think the numbers will be that far over.”

Legislative support

Sen. Cheri Steinmetz, R-Torrington, said the tunnel reopening was great news for everyone involved.

“It’s a testament to the work of the problem solvers on the ground and both of the irrigation boards,” Steinmetz said. “(Locals are) overjoyed to have water flowing back through the canal.”

On the policy side, she said legislators are looking into potential ways for the state to help Goshen County ag producers and Wyoming residents affected by similar disasters in the future.

“The Select Water Committee will be taking up this project through the omnibus water bill,” Steinmetz said. “We’ll be advancing that to a construction phase in the 2020 (Legislative) Session.” 

The omnibus water bill allows legislators to approve and transfer funds from state accounts into priority water projects around Wyoming.“We’re also looking into an emergency account when issues like this arise similar to the fire suppression account,” Steinmetz added.

The emergency fire suppression account bill was adopted by the Legislature this year. It allows unspent, unobligated general fund monies appropriated to the Division of Forestry to revert to a revolving account for emergency fire suppression.

Questions of responsibility

Despite an outpouring of support from Wyoming agencies in response to the tunnel collapse, Steinmetz said there is still a question of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s responsibility in the collapse.

Bureau spokesperson Jay Dallman said the agency constructed the tunnel in 1917 as part of the North Platte Project, then signed over the responsibility for maintenance and use to Goshen Irrigation and Gering-Fort Laramie Irrigation districts.

“The agency response (to questions of responsibility) is under that 1926 agreement, the (irrigation) districts are responsible for operation and maintenance,” Dallman said. “However, we’re certainly supportive or our districts, and we’re trying to work with them to figure out solutions to the problem.”

The bureau authorized up to $4 million in loans for temporary repairs to the Gering-Fort Laramie Irrigation Canal tunnel, he said. While Dallman did not have the exact amount requested by the districts on hand, he said it was about $2 million.

Posten did not have an estimate on the tunnel’s cost of repairs.

Dallman said the loan was on a 50-year term at about 3 percent interest, and the districts would only be responsible for paying back 65 percent of the loan value.

About 100 years ago, the bureau also built the Interstate Canal System, which leads out from Whalen Diversion Dam and serves farmland in Wyoming and Nebraska.

“One could easily conclude this has been an eye opener for all of us,” Dallman said. “We will probably be not only continuing inspections with the (irrigation) districts, but also looking for ways to improve on the technology used in those inspections.”

State Fair endowment provides solid footing for years ahead

in Agriculture/News
1856
Don’t miss this report from the 2019 Wyoming State Fair highlighting what the opportunity to show in Douglas means to 4H kids and their parents. (Video by Mike McCrimmon)

By James Chilton, Cowboy State Daily

DOUGLAS – This year’s Wyoming State Fair is over, but the next chapter of its story is just beginning as fair organizers begin to realize proceeds from the fair’s newly-established endowment fund.

Approved by the state Legislature in 2018, the Wyoming State Fair Endowment was established to provide a permanent, stable and consistent source of funding to draw on in future years, rather than rely on appropriations from the state’s General Fund — its main banking account —  which is subject to swings based on the fortunes of the energy and tourism markets.

“It’s always been (dependent on) the General Fund, and when you have a downturn in the economy, that impacts your ability to use those funds,” said Doug Miyamoto, director of the Wyoming Department of Agriculture. “The state fair has always operated as an educational venue and a state championship for youth in agriculture. Over the past couple of years the philosophy’s changed, and I think the legislature is looking to transition to more of a pay-to-play type situation.”

Individual and business donors have raised $100,000 for the state endowment in its first year, which was matched dollar-for-dollar by the state treasurer’s office. That’s on top of the $100,000 the endowment started with from its initial legislation, and another $1.1 million added by the Legislature in this year’s supplementary budget bill.

But by far the biggest gift to the endowment to date was $2 million from the Wyoming Pari-Mutuel Commission, which oversees the state’s live and off-track horse race wagering. 

“That shot in the arm from the Pari-Mutuel Commission is certainly one that’s appreciated,” Miyamoto said.

With $3.3 million to start with, Miyamoto said the fair will generate $150,000 a year in interest, with three-quarters of that to be reinvested into the endowment. As the corpus grows, Miyamoto said the 25 percent left over for operating revenue will trend upward too; but it won’t be the only new revenue source for the fair going forward.

“The endgame is to diversify the funding sources for the fair, so the endowment is one aspect of a larger strategic effort,” Miyamoto said. “We got a new state fair board who can reach out to businesses around the state and get some corporate sponsorship for the fair, try to use the facilities to generate revenue. We’re going to push as hard as we can to get sponsorships and contributions up.”

Crop insurance to cover losses after Goshen County irrigation canal failure

in Agriculture/News
USDA crop insurance approved
1859

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Crews continue repairs on an irrigation tunnel collapse as Goshen County residents prepare for a potential hit to their economy, which could be lessened by crop insurance payouts.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said in a news release its Risk Management Agency concluded the July 17 collapse of the Gering-Fort Laramie Canal tunnel was weather-related and as a result was an insurable cause of loss. 

“The (Risk Management Agency) will reinsure, in accordance with the terms and conditions of the Standard Reinsurance Agreement, production and prevented planting losses if the approved insurance providers pay the full amount of the claims to producers in accordance with the provisions of their 2019 crop policies,” the news release states.

The news release said the area received up to twice its normal rainfall in the 30 days leading up to the collapse.

Prior to the announcement, Torrington’s economic forecast looked dire.

“We’re used to tightening our belts — the people are resilient,” Adams said. “We’re hopeful, and we’re going to get through it.”

The mayor’s comments come on the heels of an economic analysis report produced jointly by the Nebraska Extension and University of Wyoming Extension. Created prior to the USDA’s decision, the report assumes a total loss of crops, no insurance payout and estimates the collapsed Gering-Fort Laramie Canal could cost both states about $90 million combined.

Economic analysis report co-author Brian Lee said Goshen’s share of the loss could be about $24.5 million with another $1 million in spillover losses between Goshen County and Scotts Bluff County, Nebraska.

“The model assumes a total loss if you were going to take corn all the way to grain,” Lee explained. 

Alternatively, some Goshen corn farmers, who mostly grow to feed livestock, could chop the corn early for silage, reducing losses, he said.

Alfalfa and corn raised for grain make up more than 60,000 acres of the more than 107,000 acres in the affected area. Whereas corn on the Nebraska side accounts for about 24,000 acres and alfalfa accounts for about 11,000, in Goshen County, the two are flipped with alfalfa consisting of about 25,000 acres and corn accounting for about 12,000 acres, the report states. Goshen County’s next largest crop in the affected area is “other hay” at about 8,000 acres, followed by edible beans at more than 4,000 acres.

Much of the farming data for 2019 is not yet available, so Lee said the team working on the report made several assumptions.

“The biggest challenge was tracking down what data we thought were correct,” Lee said. “We had to go back to previous years and assume previous cropping patterns were similar to what was planted this year.”

Because of fluctuating market prices, cropping patterns can vary year to year.

“Most of the crops grown in Goshen county along that canal are grown for use on the farm,” Lee said. “We were comfortable making the assumption that the cropping wouldn’t be very different from previous years.”

Scotts Bluff County, Nebraska, however, has more non-feed crops, like dry beans and sugar beets. 

“Sugar beets are often on contract, so roughly, the same amount of acreage is going to be grown (each year) to meet those contract shares,” Lee explained. “We also assumed dry bean producers would have the same equipment this year and produce dry beans again.” 

Adams said the impact could be far greater than $90 million during the next few years.

“We know that revenue turns over about 7 times in a community … so it could be about $250 million spendable revenue in the county,” he said. “Down the road in two to three years, we’re going to have a sales tax impact in Torrington and all the little municipalities in Goshen County.”

It’s been a rough year for Torrington, Adams added. Western Sugar Co-op closed in March, removing about 90 part-time positions and 200 full-time jobs, he said. 

“The area’s main retail store, Shopko, closed a few months ago,” Adams said. “This community has taken some hits.”

The latest being the irrigation canal, which collapsed July 17 about one mile south of Fort Laramie. The canal facilitates the irrigation of about 52,000 acres of farmland in Wyoming and another 55,000 acres in Nebraska. Without water, nearly all the crops could be lost, according to a report by the University of Nebraska Lincoln Panhandle Research and Extension Center.

Laying out the potential weekly impact of lost irrigation, the report lists corn as a 100 percent loss, dry edible beans as a greater than 90 percent loss and sugar beets as a 50-60 percent loss after Aug. 13, the last predicted date provided.

Rainfall, however, could reduce the losses, the report states.

In Cheyenne, National Weather Service Meteorologist Rob Cox said the agency recorded 2.2 inches of rainfall during July in Goshen County, which is about one-half inch above normal. But August’s current rainfall is less than one-half inch, about one-half inch below normal, he said.At the canal breach, Goshen Irrigation District Manager Rob Posten said the tunnel crew was making progress.

“They are past the first cave-in, which was the small one,” Posten said. “They are into the second cave-in now, and I’ve not heard of any other cave-ins, but we’ll just have to wait and see.”

Excavation crews above the tunnel are nearly complete, but he said he does not have a timeline for potentially reopening the canal.

“I’m still hoping for this season,” Posten said. “But there’s so many unknowns in tunnels that it’s nearly impossible, I’m learning, to predict completion.”

On Climate Change & Cattle Production

in Agriculture/Cat Urbigkit/Column/Range Writing
On climate change and cattle
1796

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

The latest report coming from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is focused on climate change and land, but something must have been garbled in the translation from Geneva because much of the U.S.-media translation emphasized that people should eat less beef and quit wasting so much food. That unfortunate result comes from reporters unwilling to make the time and effort to read the report itself, which – at hundreds of pages and still in draft form – makes for an interesting but not-pleasant task.

The report has some important findings, such as this: “Policies that operate across the food system, including those that reduce food loss and waste and influence dietary choices, enable more sustainable land-use management, enhanced food security and low emissions trajectories. Such policies can contribute to climate change adaptation and mitigation, reduce land degradation, desertification and poverty as well as improve public health. The adoption of sustainable land management and poverty eradication can be enabled by improving access to markets, securing land tenure, factoring environmental costs into food, making payments for ecosystem services, and enhancing local and community collective action.”

But that’s not what made the headlines last week.

As the Sustainable Food Trust points out, “Contrary to some of today’s headlines that are calling for a shift to exclusively plant-based diets, the conclusions of the report actually find that balanced diets should include animal-sourced food produced in resilient, sustainable and low-greenhouse gas emission systems, and that these present major opportunities for climate adaptation and mitigation while generating significant co-benefits in terms of human health.”

“As the report highlights, diverse, locally appropriate mixed farming, which counters the damage done by years of continuous arable cropping reliant on chemical inputs, will have a transformative effect on the environment, climate and public health.”

The problem with a global report is simply that it’s global, and each locality/county/state/nation has its own issues that add to the global situation. When it comes to livestock emissions, the IPCC report notes: “All estimates agree that cattle are the main source of global livestock emissions (65–77%). Livestock in low and middle-income countries contribute 70% of the emissions from ruminants and 53% from monogastric livestock (animals without ruminant digestion processes …), and these are expected to increase as demand for livestock products increases in these countries.”

Most (90%) of the world’s cattle are not located in the United States. India has the largest cattle inventory in the world, at more than 300 million, or 30% of the world’s cattle population (domestic water buffalos are included in India’s statistics). While it’s legal to send buffalos to slaughter for human consumption, across majority-Hindu India (which views cattle as sacred) the slaughter of cattle is illegal and the country has enacted numerous cow protection laws. Poor people unable to afford to continue feeding and caring for unproductive livestock are unable to sell the animals, so many are simply abandoned.

Brazil is the number-two country for its cattle inventory, and has been widely criticized for its clearcutting of forest to accommodate more grazing, but that widespread practice has been substantially curtailed in the last decade.

Increasing cattle productivity, as we’ve been doing in the United States, has brought great gains in reducing GHG emissions. Although the cattle inventory in the United States declined over the last 40 years, cattle productivity has increased at the same time (providing more pounds of beef), and most importantly, total methane emissions from the nation’s cattle decreased during that same time. 

Cattle producers in the United States will continue to provide leadership in mitigating the impact of their animals through genetic improvements and selection for feed efficiency, and overall improvements in animal health, reproduction, and reproductive lifespans.

So while we should all strive to eat healthy foods, you don’t need to feel guilty for enjoying American beef – especially beef that comes from the western range {See Figure1: Livestock methane emissions}.

From “Discrepancies and Uncertainties in Bottom-up Gridded Inventories of Livestock Methane Emissions for the Contiguous United States”, Environmental Science & Technology, 2017512313668-13677, Publication Date: November 2, 2017, https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.7b03332.
Figure 1.* Gridded (0.1° × 0.1°) livestock methane emissions (Mg/yr/km2) for the contiguous United States: enteric fermentation, cattle (panel A); manure management, cattle (panel B), manure management, cattle, swine, and poultry [panel C; swine and poultry emissions are presented on a county level for the top 5−6 producing states (see text) and on a state level for the remaining states], and cattle enteric and livestock (cattle, swine, and poultry) manure management (panel D, which is the sum of panels A and C). 

As the IPCC reports: “In contrast to the increasing trend in absolute GHG emissions, GHG emissions intensities, defined as GHG emissions per unit produced, have declined globally and are about 60% lower today than in the 1960s. This is largely due to improved meat and milk productivity of cattle breeds.”

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.

* Note on Figure 1: From “Discrepancies and Uncertainties in Bottom-up Gridded Inventories of Livestock Methane Emissions for the Contiguous United States”, Environmental Science & Technology, 2017512313668-13677, Publication Date: November 2, 2017, https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.7b03332.

Crews working 7 days a week to repair irrigation canal

in Agriculture/News
Fort Laramie-Gering irrigation canal
Crews work to repair the collapsed tunnel on the Fort Laramie-Gering irrigation canal. The tunnel’s collapse in July shut off irrigation water to 100,000 acres of land in eastern Wyoming and western Nebraska. Officials hope to have water running in the canal within two to three weeks. (Photo courtesy of the Goshen Irrigation District)
1783

 By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Out-of-state contractors are racing to complete repairs on a collapsed irrigation tunnel in Goshen County as governmental agencies analyze the best ways to help affected farmers.

“We’re up there seven days a week trying to get it done as quick as we can,” Goshen Irrigation District Manager Rob Posten said. “The farmers want water yesterday, and we want to give it to them.”

The problems started July 17 when an irrigation tunnel collapsed in Goshen County, cutting irrigation water off from more than 100,000 acres of farmland in Wyoming and Nebraska at the height of the hot and dry season.

Both Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon and Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts signed declarations of emergency in response to the collapse.

“Our office is continuing to analyze ways to assist and that might include some potential low-interest loan programs and looking at funding sources that might be available to the irrigation district,” said Michael Pearlman, Gordon’s communications director.

The Wyoming Department of Transportation, Wyoming Department of Homeland Security and Wyoming Army National Guard also visited the site of the collapse to determine possible ways Wyoming could provide aid, Pearlman added.

Built by the Bureau of Reclamation in 1917 as a part of the North Platte Project, the tunnel is 14 feet in diameter and 2,200 feet long and is located about a mile south of Fort Laramie.

Farm Services of America Insurance Officer Vanessa Reishus said the cause of the collapse has not been determined and doing so could be a drawn out process.

“I’m sure the risk management agency is waiting for the engineers to give them a cause for collapse,” Reishus said. “Generally, these things take a really long time.”

If the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decides the cause was anything other natural, crop insurance won’t cover the farmers’ losses.

At the canal, about 40 workers from the irrigation district and construction crews from St. Louis, Missouri, and Nebraska are trying to repair the canal as quickly as possible, Posten said.  

“I talk to the tunnel guys every day,” he said. “As the ditch crew removes dirt from the top of the tunnel, the tunnel crew is setting steel brace ribs and sealing the breach.”

Recent rains likely helped farmers weather the disaster, but slowed progress on repairs.

“The tunnel crew probably spent half a day pumping water out of there after the big rain storm,” Posten explained. “It didn’t hinder them too much. We’ll take rain every day if we can get it.”

Estimating when the tunnel will be operational again is difficult, but Posten said he’s pushing to get water back to the crops in less than a month.

“I’d like to have water running in 2-3 weeks,” he said. “That’s the goal.”

Facebook Needs Agriculture, & Ag Needs Facebook

in Agriculture/Cat Urbigkit/Column/Range Writing
Cat Urbigkit animal agriculture
1766

The world needs more people sharing stories of life with animals.

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

A lot of my ag friends are switching social media platforms, leaving Facebook (FB) for greener pastures. Green as in $$, since FB’s commerce policy forbids posts that “promote the sale of any animals.” Although animal-sale posts are still rampant on the platform, FB began cracking down on the posts in the last few years and has increased that activity in the last few months.

But animal sales aren’t the only animal-related items undergoing the FB smackdown: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has complained that FB has upped its use of warning screens on PETA videos. That means that rather than PETA videos popping up in a FB-user’s news feed, the videos are replaced with a warning screen that must be clicked on before the video can be viewed. I love these warning screens, but PETA hates them.

Since FB wrecked PETA’s social-media campaign, PETA adopted a new strategy: purchasing enough shares in Facebook to enable them to send out a press release noting this radical group is now a FB shareholder. For those who have lived under a rock and don’t know much about PETA, the animal-rights organization opposes any human use of animals (including keeping animals as pets, or used in agriculture, entertainment, as clothing, etc.). PETA “opposes speciesism, which is a human-supremacist worldview.”

The post-press-release frenzy from those opposed to PETA was predictable for those willing to read past the headlines. PETA’s shares simply enable the group “to submit a shareholder resolution, attend the company’s annual meetings, and ask questions of executives there.” That’s it. It’s not a corporate takeover; it’s a successful ploy to grab headlines. PETA doesn’t stand a chance at turning Facebook into an animal-rights activism site – at least not under the platform’s current structure. For more on that, check out this great Vox article.

Between the FB crackdown on animal sales, and the PETA press release, ag producers are leaving the platform in droves (excuse the pun), and turning to other social media platforms that allow animal sales. But I beg those involved in animal agriculture to please keep posting about their lives with animals on Facebook. Facebook may be the only place that many members of the public will know anything about animal agriculture – even though we feed the world.

Animal agriculture needs Facebook to reach the masses, to tell our stories to the world. We need to keep showing Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg what it is we do, and to give him reasons why he should pay us a visit every now and then, like he did to a South Dakota beef cattle outfit in 2017.

He also visited drilling rigs in North Dakota, a dairy farm in Wisconsin, and rail yards in Nebraska. I say good on Zuckerberg for his willingness to learn. It’s our job to continue to teach.

FB users have utilized a variety of ways to get around the FB policy banning animal sales, including posting animals in discussion groups (rather than the FB Marketplace). Some groups are infiltrated by animal rights activists who report the violations to get the groups shut down, and, ironically, some animal breeders are apparently reporting posts written by their competitors to the same affect.

In case you’ve had the fortune to be blissfully unaware, parts of the horse and dog sales worlds are highly competitive and somewhat cutthroat. But that isn’t a reflection of most people involved in animal agriculture. We’re more of an independent lot who prefer to do our own thing.

We need Facebook as a platform to share our stories of what it’s like to live in close association with animals, and with nature. To share the stories of how animals feed our bodies, nourish our souls, and sustain the world. To share how we develop partnerships, those critical human-animal bonds, and how animals solve our problems, make our lives both easier and more pleasant, and how living and working with animals opens our eyes to art, science, and beauty every day. To share stories of how we think about and communicate with animals, about how these human-animal relationships both fill us with wonder, and crush us when those bonds are severed. 

Please, my friends, stay with me on Facebook, and continue to share the world of agriculture to the masses that are far removed from this way of life.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.

Construction crews race the clock to fix canal

in Agriculture/Community/Economic development/News
1746

Farmers and ranchers in eastern Wyoming and western Nebraska are facing nature’s deadline as construction crews work to repair an irrigation breach that left 800 irrigators without water.

Construction crews are working full-time to repair the breach in the Fort Laramie-Gering irrigation canal that provides water for 100,000 acres of land on both sides of the Wyoming-Nebraska border.

Water to the canal has been turned off since the collapse occurred on July 17 and the late summer heat makes it crucial for water to be delivered to fields served the 130-mile canal as quickly as possible to avoid crop losses.

Rob Posten, district manager of the Goshen Irrigation District, said the district hopes to have the canal repaired by late August.

If the repairs take much longer, farmers and ranchers could be looking at significant crop losses, which Shawn Madden of Torrington Livestock said would affect the economy throughout the area.

“It’s not just if you’re farming south of Torrington or down by Gering, Nebraska,” he said. “Those people are all customers on Main Street in Scottsbluff (Nebraska), Torrington. I mean, these people are in financial peril.”

Cactus Covello of Points West Bank said most agricultural operations run on a slim profit margin to begin with.

“There’s not much profit in the 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.”

Questions remain over whether the crop losses will be covered by insurance. If the tunnel failure was the result of natural causes such as rain, officials believe the losses will be covered. If the collapse was the result of structural failure, the coverage will not apply. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is working to determine what caused the collapse of the 102-year-old tunnel.

Covello said he expects members of the community to work together to overcome the problems.

“These banks around here, we serve the agricultural community,” he said. “We will change and do things that we need to do so we can all survive together.”

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Lull in fire season doesn’t mean Wyoming is out of woods yet

in Agriculture/News
1744

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

After a spate of wildfires dominating Wyoming headlines in recent years, 2019 has been a quiet fire season for wildland firefighters so far. A wet spring and dry summer, however, have fire experts on high alert, one of the state’s lead disaster educators said.

“When we have increased forage growth without the chance to thin it down, we’re going to have an enhanced fire risk,” said Scott Cotton, a University of Wyoming Area Extension educator. “If we keep getting these dry lighting storms, our fire risk could go all the way into November.”

U.S Forest Service spokesperson Aaron Voos said the Forest Service is also keeping a weather eye on the horizon.

“There is always the possibility that we end up with accumulated fuels,” Voos explained. “This year has been pretty wet so far, but that doesn’t mean those fuels couldn’t dry out and cause us to see some fires late summer and early fall.”

Wyoming experienced several active fire seasons recently, with the human-started Badger Creek and Ryan fires consuming more than 20,000 acres each in Southeastern Wyoming last year. Near Wheatland, the Britania Mountain Fire scorched more than 30,000 acres in 2018.

As of Thursday, only one wildfire was known to be burning in Wyoming — the 4-acre Lick Creek Fire in the Bighorn National Forest. Two firefighters suffered minor injuries while fighting the flames, but were treated and released from an area hospital.U.S. Forest Service officials were also surveying the area Thursday to see if any new fires had been ignited near Story by lightning strikes Wednesday.

Not all fire activity is bad, Voos stressed. “A certain amount of wildfire is acceptable, but it’s hard to draw that line,” Voos said. “If we could pick and choose where we wanted these fires to happen, there would be a lot more good fires.”

Prevention

As “flash fuels” such as cheat grass dry out, Cotton said fire prevention falls to everyone.

“Unfortunately, we have a lot more plains fires than we do timber fires,” he said. “We try to encourage ranchers to increase their grazing to reduce fuels and graze strips intermittently to create fire breaks.”

One rancher described searching for potential fire hazards as “looking for purple,” Cotton said.

“Most of our cheat grass species … have a tendency for their tops to turn purple when they dry out,” he explained. 

Once dried out, cheat grass becomes a flash fuel, short grasses and light brush up to two feet tall that burn rapidly. Cotton said flash fuels are especially dangerous during the dry lightning storms common in late summer.

“There’s a number of ways they can reduce the fuels — mostly mechanical and animal (grazing),” he added. “But we also have a program with the weed and pest districts across the state that if (land owners) identify invasive flash fuels, the district can spray them to reduce the danger for the following year.”

On public lands, Voos said visitors can be the first line of defense against wildfires. 

“Campfires are, by far, the leading cause to wildfires (in the national forest),” he said. “The big fires we’ve had are not typical of this area, and that has a lot to do with human-caused fires.”

Voos provided a list of preventive measures to reduce the risk of fires on public lands:

  • Scrape back dead grass and forest materials from your campfire site;
  • Keep your campfire small and under control;
  • Keep a shovel and a water container nearby to douse escaped embers;
  • Do not park vehicles in tall dry grass as hot tailpipes can cause flash fuels to catch on fire;
  • Remember that any ignition – cigarettes, campfires, gunfire, vehicles – could be the cause of a wildland fire;
  • Grass and other vegetation can dry quickly and is extremely flammable; and
  • Always follow current fire restrictions.

Downtime?

Despite the lack of large wildfires currently blazing across Wyoming, Voos said Forest Service personnel are still out there fighting the good fight.

“One thing we’ve been able to do this year is some additional prescribed burning,” he explained. “We put some good fire on the ground on purpose and kept it contained.”

Prescribed burning can reduce accumulated fuels in problematic areas and create natural fire breaks as well as encourage biodiversity.

Additionally, fire crews can be allocated to other areas of the country where the fire season is in full swing.

“They still fight fires, but not on this unit,” Voos said. “They go out of area to assist other people that are in need of firefighters. When we have wildfires, we pull crews from around the country to help out, and turnabout is fair play.”

Cotton said farmers and ranchers should use the lull to survey their land.

“Early recognition and early use is one of the best methods of fire management,” he explained. “If you can identify where the fuel is, then, at the very least, you can talk to your volunteer firefighters, so they know where to keep an eye out.”

Parched: 102-year-old irrigation canal collapse threatens livelihood of 800 farm and ranch families

in Agriculture/News/weather
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Over 100,000 acres of farm and ranch land in eastern Wyoming and western Nebraska have been without irrigation water for more than two weeks after an 102-year-old irrigation canal collapsed.

For the roughly 800 farm and ranch families whose operations straddle the Wyoming-Nebraska state line, the situation is dire and the clock is ticking.

“It was the worst timing in the world,” Goshen County Irrigation District manager Rob Posten said. “17th of July when it’s 90 degrees everyday and not much rain. Couldn’t have been any worse timing.”

“It’s my worst nightmare,” Posten added.

Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon and Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts have both signed emergency declarations allowing the use of state resources to get the old canal repaired and running water.

“I have been in crop insurance for 20 years, and I have never seen anything like this.”

CSD: Crop insurance might not cover irrigation canal collapse losses (July 29, 2019)

The massive canal, constructed during World War I, runs 85 miles through Wyoming and another 45 miles in Nebraska.

“If there was a hundred year warranty it ran out last year,” said Shawn Madden with Torrington Livestock Auction.

There is hope to salvage at least part of the year’s crop yield as Wyoming meteorologist Don Day predicts some rain may be on the way for eastern Wyoming and western Nebraska. The bad news, Day warns, is that late August in Wyoming tends to be bone dry.

For the livelihood of 800 families, the window to get the canal operational is small and getting smaller.

However, Cactus Covello of Points West Bank said the farming families of the region will find a way through the crisis.

“Agricultural people in Nebraska and Wyoming, they’re the most resilient you’re going to come by,” he said. “They’re tough. They’ll find a way. We may lose some, but you won’t lose many. They’ll find a way to survive.”

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