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irrigation

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

in News/Agriculture/Business
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.”

Crews working 7 days a week to repair irrigation canal

in News/Agriculture
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)
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 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.”

Construction crews race the clock to fix canal

in Economic development/News/Community/Agriculture
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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Crop insurance might not cover irrigation canal collapse losses

in News/Agriculture
Wyoming irrigation canal collapse
1718

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

An irrigation canal collapse in Goshen County could devastate more than 100,000 acres of crops and producers may be left without compensation for the loss, a Farm Service Agency (FSA) spokesperson said.

“The cause of loss being failure of irrigation system is a covered cost,” FSA Insurance Officer Vanessa Reishus said. “But, the cause of failure has to have an underlying cause that was a natural occurrence.”

The canal tunnel is located about 1 mile south of Fort Laramie and facilitates the irrigation of about 52,000 acres of farmland in Wyoming and another 52,000 acres in Nebraska. Its collapse last week halted the delivery of water to the land and both states have declared the situation an emergency.

Reishus said the area did receive above-average precipitation this year and excess water load on the tunnel is being reviewed as a possible cause of the collapse.

However, the tunnel was built in 1917 and if engineers determine the structure failed as a result of age, FSA insurance would not compensate producers for their lost crops.

“Crop insurance is a government program, and they subsidize it,” Reishus explained. “But, the farmers pay pretty high premiums to have access to it.”

The cause of the collapse will be determined by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, she said. Because two states are involved, offices in both Billings, Montana, and Topeka, Kansas, will submit paperwork on the collapse. If the two offices disagree about the cause, the paperwork could be sent to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a final determination, Reishus said.

“What the (Corps of Engineers) will do is gather the information from the Bureau of Reclamation and review the engineers’ information about what happened and why it happened,” she added.

Brian Lee, a University of Wyoming Extension agriculture economist, said some producers could be hit harder than others.

“The majority of the affected crops are dry bean, alfalfa and corn, but there is some sugar beets and other small crops in there, too,” Lee said. “Most farmers have livestock in this area, and you produce your corn and your alfalfa to feed it to your livestock.”

Without feed for livestock, producers may need to purchase feed elsewhere.

Additionally, Reishus said alfalfa is not generally insured, so those growers would not receive compensation either way.

“I have been in crop insurance for 20 years, and I have never seen anything like this,” she said. “Most of the crop loss causes are a lot more simple than something like this. In our area, (insurance) is used a lot for hail and freezes.”

Lee, who works at the UW Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension Center near Lingle, said the uncertainty of the insurance payment is the worst part for many people. 

“I think this is more detrimental than a hail event, because when hail comes through, you immediately have an answer — it’s a covered loss,” he explained. “Right now, we are all waiting to find out if the canal can get fixed, and if so, how soon.”

Goshen Irrigation District Manager Rob Posten said Thursday professionals were called in from St. Louis to repair the canal. He did not immediately return a request for comment on the status of repairs Friday.

Lee said cool temperatures and heavier spring rainfall this year prevented producers from planting as early as they would have liked.

“We were late putting the crops in, and that could prove detrimental without water during a heat wave,” he explained. “It’s a really sandy soil, so it’s more imperative to have water on a crop. It will definitely affect yield on the back end if they go a good amount of time without irrigation.”

Because the insurance payout is based on each producer’s premium, Reishus said she did not have an estimated total the insurance might pay if the cause was determined to be natural.

“It could easily be $1000 an acre on sugar beets and $500 $600 an acre on corn and beans,” she said. “With 100,000 acres, the cost of payout could be very high.”

Irrigation tunnel collapse could cost Wyoming’s ag millions, repairs underway

in News/Agriculture
Tunnel collapse Torrington
1703

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

More than 100,000 acres of agricultural land are without irrigation after a canal tunnel collapsed July 17 in eastern Wyoming and western Nebraska.

“The tunnel collapse shut the water off in one of our canals,” Goshen Irrigation District Manager Rob Posten said. “Right now, about 400 landowners are affected just in Goshen County.”

Approximately 52,000 acres of the affected area are in Goshen County and the rest is across the state line in Nebraska, Posten said.

John Ellis, a Goshen County commissioner, said if unchecked, the collapse could have a disastrous impact on the entire county.

“I’ve never seen a disaster close to this scale,” Ellis said. “Agriculture is Goshen County. There’s very little other businesses, and they all rely on agriculture.”

On Monday, Gov. Mark Gordon signed an emergency declaration to allow the use of state resources to help fix the collapse.

“This is a serious emergency, and we recognize addressing an issue of this magnitude will take coordination, especially because it affects so many Wyoming and Nebraska farmers,” Gordon said in a news release. “We are working with an understanding of the urgency of the situation, along with a need to proceed carefully. Wyoming is united in its effort to find the right way to help the Goshen Irrigation District get up and running.”

Created in 1926, the irrigation district was formed to contract with the federal government for water from the North Platte River. The district pays the U.S. a proportionate share of the estimated cost to operate and maintain the facilities that store the water for use, including the Pathfinder Dam and Reservoir and Guernsey Dam and Reservoir, according to the district’s website.

“We supply water to the farmers,” Posten said. “We only have two canal tunnels, and they’ve both been there 100 years. The one that collapsed was built in 1917.”

He said the collapse was not maintenance related.

The district has not yet received state resources to repair the collapse and Posten said it’s still too early to speculate what those resources might be.The repairs, however, are already underway.

“We have people that know how to fix this working on it as we speak — professionals from St. Louis, Missouri,” he said. “I don’t know the full scope of the work needed, but they will likely pump grout in around the tunnel, fill in the voids and install steel ribs to shore it up, and then try to run water through it.”

If the water is not turned back on soon, Ellis said the cost could be through the roof. Although he was not aware of an official estimate of potential damages, Ellis said he’s heard guesses between $90 million and $250 million.

From a policy making standpoint, he said the collapse would likely affect the county’s future, but determining how is a waiting game.

“We don’t know the total impact,” Ellis said. “Until we know the financial impact, it’s hard to tell what we may have to do.”

Whatever the case, Ellis said he’s proud of the way the irrigation district is handling the situation.

“The Goshen Irrigation District have done such an excellent job,” Ellis said. “They’ve left no stone unturned. They’ve done everything possible to get this thing working again.”

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