Drying Up Dirt, Daylight, and Dollars

Six-hundred-fifty feet into the tunnel, workers came across the first pile of dirt and debris from the smaller of the two sinkholes.  Goshen Irrigation District photo.

by Kayla Sargent

Since July 17, hay, corn, sugar beets, and dry beans across 107,000 acres have been without water in Goshen County, Wyoming and Scotts Bluff County, Nebraska.  An irrigation tunnel collapse leading to a breach in the Fort Laramie Canal could cause economic loss of $89 million.  A team of Extension specialists from Nebraska and University of Wyoming conducted an economic analysis assuming a total loss on row crops and one third loss on alfalfa and irrigated hay.

“It’s definitely going to hurt,” Goshen County Extension Agent Caleb Carter said.  “It’s a significant portion of the county — the area being affected is one of the main cropping areas.  It will be a significant blow if they don’t get that third cutting.”

Carter said when the breach occurred most farmers in the county were finished with the first cutting of hay, and are now in the process of finishing the second cutting.  He said this is three to four weeks behind the typical haying season in the area.

“We could potentially get a third cutting if we had water by the end of the month and the freeze holds off,” Carter said.  “It depends on the soil profile.  If it is totally dried out, there may not be time to get a third crop of hay.”

He said the irrigated hay is of high quality and a portion of it is sold out of state to dairies and horse farms.  This time of year, hay is typically being shipped out of the county.  Uncertainty in the market has changed that.

“Some have been sitting on the hay a bit,” he said.  “It’s a lot of hurry up and wait trying to guess what comes next with market and harvest.”

Some hay stays in Wyoming and is used for winter feed.  The loss of one third of the annual hay production could affect more than the farmers.  Hay prices are likely to reflect a lower supply, Carter said.

“One concern is if supplies are down, hay prices might go up.  Hay is already up a bit,” he said.

The shortage of feed could be amplified by corn loss in the area as well.  Carter said many cattle producers graze corn stalks in the late fall and winter.

“The loss of irrigation water has a trickle affect on the industry,” he said.

Nebraska Extension regional economist Jessica Groskopf, a contributor in the economic analysis, agreed, adding that small Nebraska towns will feel the affect of the canal breach, too.

“If farmers are unable to sell these commodities, there will be a negative impact not only on our farmers but also on main streets,” Groskopf said.  “It is important for our communities to understand the hardships our farmers are facing and realize the loss of these crops will ripple through our economy.”

Work to repair the 14-foot wide, 2,200-foot long tunnel began directly after the collapse.  The tunnel, which connects the Nebraska and Wyoming canal systems to the North Platte River, collapsed in two places.  The first and smaller sinkhole has been cleared and crews are now progressing to the larger sinkhole.  The larger collapse is about 675 feet into the tunnel.  Until all of the dirt and debris is removed and the tunnel is stabilized, full damage remains undetermined.

Carter said there is not a firm completion date for the repairs at this point.  He said the Goshen Irrigation District (GID) Board is “trying to remain optimistic with hopes for water by the end of the month.”

“They’re really concerned about more collapse while working in the tunnel so the crews are taking all necessary precautions to ensure it is stable first,” Carter explained.  “Completion time really depends on the findings once they dig into that main collapse area.”

In order to get water back on fields as quickly as possible, the GID Board had to choose a temporary fix that consists of placing a rib every four feet, anchored to the cement, until the main blockage can be reached and cleared.  This process is estimated to cost about $2 million.  The GID Board also estimated another $2 million in repairs to the canal, which were nearly complete as of August 13.

“The main thing is we want to see water come out the end of the tunnel soon,” GID Board President Bob Coxbill said.  “We know the impact this has on hay fields and row crops.  It is a huge impact to the lives of people here in our community.”

The GID is in the process of researching a more permanent solution for upcoming seasons.

“We still have a lot of irons in the fire,” Coxbill said. “We have a big issue to figure out for both states.”

In Wyoming, a donation account has been established at First State Bank to support the repair efforts in response to the irrigation canal collapse. All donations will be allocated to the GID to support their work in repairing the tunnel and the canal damage. Donations can be sent to: First State Bank, PO BOX 1098, Torrington WY 82240.  Checks should be made out to: Goshen Irrigation District Donation Account.

In Nebraska, a relief fund has been established by Platte Valley Bank and the Oregon Trail Foundation for farmers impacted by the tunnel collapse.  All donations will go towards the effort to restore water and support local affected families.  Visit https://pvbank.com/give/ and click on “donate” to contribute.


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