Irrigation Collapse Triggers Uncertainty in Western Nebraska

July 30, 2019, 6:45 a.m. ·

Work underway last week on repairing an irrigation canal breach in Wyoming (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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Repairs are underway after a tunnel collapse cut off irrigation water to hundreds of farmers in the Scottsbluff area. But big questions remain including how long it will take, who will pay, and what the long-term effects might be.

On a sunny green hillside just south of Lingle, Wyoming, giant earth-moving equipment crawls across a huge brown scar on the landscape.

“We’re repairing the spot of the canal that breached and washed out,” said Scott Hort, assistant manager of the Gering-Ft. Laramie Irrigation District.

Areas to the south of the North Platte River in bright green are affected (Map courtesy U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)

In the early morning hours of July 17, the roof of an irrigation tunnel under these hills collapsed. Water backed up, forming a huge pool until it overtopped the canal banks and cascaded through farm fields to rejoin the North Platte River.

The collapse cut off irrigation water to more than 100,000 acres of farm fields in Wyoming and Nebraska. At a special meeting last week, Irrigation District General Manager Rick Preston struggled with his emotions as he described his first reaction.

“I have not said that to anyone but my wife. After looking at it, I did not believe that we’d be able to get water back in the system. And that hurts," Preston said.

Officials have since come up with a plan of burrowing into the collapsed tunnel, propping up the roof with steel ribs and plates as they go. But Preston warned it will take time.

“This is a long shot. We don’t even know what’s in there. In a perfect situation you’re looking at 21 days before we get water back into the system,” he said.

Preston and Ryan Strickers near the valve that used to release water to irrigate their field in the background (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

That’s bad news for people like Gering-area farmer Preston Stricker.

“With no rain and the heat the way it generally is at the end of July, the first part of August, corn’s in its pollinating stage within the next week to 10 days, and a very, very critical time, so the yield drag could be tremendous,” Stricker said.

With irrigation water, Stricker said the corn he planted would yield 225 to 240 bushels per acre, which would have been very profitable.

“It needed to happen this year because we’ve been in a three-year, barely head-above water cycle because of prices,” he said.

Sticker said going without water for three weeks could cut his yield about in half, to 120 bushels. Even with crop insurance, he says, that’s about $300 less per acre in revenue – probably enough to repay the bank for his operating loan, but not enough to cover long-term debt or living expenses. And even that level of revenue may be doubtful.

At last week’s meeting, Vanessa Reishus of Farm Credit Services had good news and bad news.

“Failure of irrigation system is a covered loss. The unfortunate issue that kind of goes with that is that you have to prove that the loss was caused by a natural occurrence,” Reishus said.

Reishus said she hopes it’s determined that this spring’s heavy rains caused the collapse of the 102-year old tunnel. However, she added, “If it’s determined that the cause was based on the age, some of the underlying structural issues, that would likely not be a covered loss.”

Gering-Ft. Laramie Irrigation District Assistant Manager Scott Hort at the scene of the tunnel collapse (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

And Irrigation District General Manager Rick Preston said it’s not just farmers who face a financial hit.

“Number one, you’re not getting the production in the field, therefore your landowners do not have the money to buy equipment or vehicles or homes or whatever is necessary for their life or their children's’ life, whatever it may be. Number two, with whatever they do not spend, businesses in this community will not receive the income to help them continue to supply, based on demand,” Preston said.

Then there’s the question of who will pay for tunnel and canal repairs, which could cost around $10 million. Steve Pitts, who farms near Lyman, Nebraska, said the burden of replacing aging infrastructure must be shared.

“It’s just like the levees on the Mississippi. You’ve got to have some sort of help. The nation has to help some of this stuff as a whole. It can’t be on the backs of a just few people, because that provides things for everybody – not just me making a living, or the banker in town here. It’s widespread. And these systems are all getting very old,” Pitts said.

But Jay Dallman, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, suggested the primary responsibility is local.

"That tunnel and the Ft. Laramie canal and the irrigation systems were turned over to the districts for operation and maintenance in 1926, I believe. The Bureau of Reclamation continues to own the facility but the responsibility for O and M lies with the districts, so the districts will be seeking funding," Dallman said.

All this has created great uncertainty in a region that has long depended on a steady supply of irrigation water.

“It’s 100-percent dependent on the canal system and the water to raise a crop. If we don’t have that, it’s very hard to raise a crop in this valley from Mother Nature with rain,” said Ryan Stricker, who farms with his brother Preston.

To some, that may seem to validate criticism of water development in areas with inadequate rainfall to support crops. But farmer Steve Pitts says doing without irrigation would have devastating economic and human consequences.

“Then you’re taking land that’s probably worth $3,500 to $4,000 an acre, you’re taking it back a value of $500. So that means all of us are off the land. We’re all broke. Everybody’s broke,” he said.

As efforts continue to repair the irrigation system, Preston Stricker says he’s coped with water shortages before, but never a complete cutoff.

“The effects? Nobody’s ever tried this. So we don’t know yet. But it could be devastating,” he said.

Those effects will become clearer, as work proceeds to repair the damage.