Tunnel collapse halts irrigation water to 104,000 acres
An underground tunnel collapse on the Fort Laramie Canal caused water to back up and the canal bank to breach in the early morning hours of July 17, leaving 104,000 acres dry as repairs are planned and completed.
The Fort Laramie Canal, according to a press release from the Goshen Irrigation District, provides irrigation water to 104,000 acres in Wyoming and Nebraska served by the Goshen and Gering-Fort Laramie Irrigation Districts and the Wright and Murphey Ditch Company.
The Goshen County Board of Commissioners declared the collapse and loss of water as a disaster to allow the use of additional resources beyond the locally available public and private resources. Chairman Wally Wolski told the Torrington Telegram that local resources have been “insufficient to meet the needs of the situation.” Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts issued an emergency declaration on Wednesday. In a release, Ricketts said about 55,000 acres in Nebraska were affected at a critical time in the growing season.
At an emotionally charged July 24 stakeholders’ meeting in Scottsbluff, Rick Preston, district manager of the Gering-Fort Laramie Irrigation District, said the frustration of the affected growers is something he understands.
“If this would have happened the first week of May or the last week of August, we wouldn’t have been sitting here today, but as you well know the issue we’re facing happened in the heart of the season that is the most critical to how you operate,” Preston said.
The Fort Laramie Canal portion of the system is 130 miles in length from where it diverts out of the North Platte River, and the failure occurred at about mile 13.5. The cause, Preston said, is unclear though engineers speculate that the wooden shoring in the 1917 tunnel deteriorated, creating a void, collapsing the tunnel.
“At present, we do not know what the actual damage is,” he said. “It’s unsafe — the Bureau of Engineers made it clear no one goes in except professionals.”
Preston said he received a call at 3 a.m. about the breach, which washed out about 1,300 feet of bank.
“After looking at it, I did not believe we would be able to get water back into the system,” he said. “That hurts.”
FINDING A SOLUTION
Preston said hours of meetings have been held with members of the boards, debating whether to invest in a temporary pumping plan or a more permanent solution. Ultimately, the temporary fix would have cost over $6 million with extensive fuel costs for six weeks to pump water. The permanent fix, he said, is to sleeve the tunnel at the cost of $7 million. Rebuilding the main canal levy will cost an estimated $1.5 to $2 million. The 10.5-foot diameter pipe must be custom made and five joints were completed, he said, when they were alerted that the pipe would not be big enough, forcing production to cease.
“So, we had to back away from that, which was heartbreaking because we thought maybe we had a solution that would have water back in the ditch in four weeks,” he said. “As it turns out, that’s not the case. So yesterday, we laid a temporary opportunity.”
The temporary fix, in a perfect world, will run about 21 days, barring any delays. Even with the permanent solution no longer an option at this point, Preston called the temporary fix a long shot, not knowing the extent of the damage. Fish rib shoring is currently being fabricated to place in the tunnel to make it safe to enter and to extract material from the tunnel. Holes will also be drilled in four locations to pump a lightweight grout to ensure no voids are present to cause another collapse. The estimated cost for the temporary repairs just to allow the flow of water is about $3 million, a rough estimate without knowledge of the integrity of the damaged or undamaged portions. Banks have committed some financial support at this time, giving an opportunity to restore water to the system.
Preston said progress has been made more complicated by the strict adherence to laws and regulations, especially as the canal is on the state line. Representatives and the governors of both states have been in contact with the board and have been encouraging.
Bryan Tuma, assistant director of the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency, said emergency declarations in Nebraska and Wyoming can open the door to funds outside the local or state area to lessen the financial burden on the landowners affected.
“If everything works out perfectly, this could be a scenario where this could be a project eligible for rebuilding the infrastructure potentially,” Tuma said. “I know the downstream economic impact associated with this is going to impact individuals. FEMA has some programs for individuals, but they do not cover crop loss.”
Despite this, Tuma said there are a number of different agencies and groups that can be brought to the table to help recovery efforts and minimize financial losses.
Scotts Bluff County Commissioner Ken Meyer urged people to contact representatives to ask them to find ways to assist.
“$10 million, that’s a lot of money,” he said. “It’s $100 an acre and to put that on the backs of our area producers who are hurting now, we can’t do that.”
Scottsbluff attorney Steve Smith clarified the question of pumping water from other sources.
“In this whole process, Director Fassett and the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources — his local representative is here, Tom Hayden — have indicated they’ll definitely be receptive to emergency applications for requests or permits to withdraw water from some other source,” Smith said. “The state has jurisdiction over that. If you’re talking about using one irrigation district’s water to put in another district, that would require permission of both boards.”
Smith said the canals are designed to hold, typically, what they’re entitled to so pumping water between districts would be complicated at best, especially with each ditch’s commitment first to its own users. ❖
— Gabel is an assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (970) 392-4410.