The public receives an update on the irrigation canal tunnel collapse

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SCOTTSBLUFF, Neb. - (KNEP) - The Gering-Fort Laramie Irrigation District held a public meeting Wednesday to update everyone on the efforts to get water back on after a tunnel collapse last week.

A public meeting was held in Scottsbluff to discuss the tunnel collapse (Source KNEP)

General Manager of the Irrigation District Rick Preston stated the canal breach occurred just before 3 am on July 17th. Because of the collapse a dam formed and washed out 1,300 feet of bank. They are not sure exactly what caused the collapse but speculate the temper was rotting and water worked its way in causing a void. With that void, the upper soils couldn’t carry itself and it released with such force that it pushed the top of the tunnel in.

Since the breach, they have been working on solutions to try to get the canal back up and running. Preston added they looked at a permanent solution with the help of tunnel experts from St. Louis, Missouri. The two boards thought this solution was the best and would have cost about $7 million. The crew out of Missouri began building 10.5 foot diameter joints but stopped production after building five of them because they weren’t big enough.

The two boards went back to the drawing board and have since devised a temporary solution. This solution will include building shoring and extracting material while pumping in grout to ensure there are no other voids. The estimated cost of this temporary fix is between 3 and 3.5 million dollars. In a perfect world, Preston said the project would be complete in 21 days.

To factor in how this could potentially effect crops, an expert with the extension center stated he made some calculations based on an assumption there would be no water or rainfall. The sugar beet crop wouldn’t be as bad but corn and beans are a different story. With no water on July 22nd, depletion of water at 20% there would be no crop loss. By the 29th depletion would increase to 55% with crop loss around 20%. But, two weeks after that and the crop will have no water in the soil and farmers would be looking at 85-90% of their crop a loss.

Beans tell a similar story. On July 22nd, water depletion was at 2% with zero crop loss. By the 29th it would be 40% depleted with farmers losing 30% of the crop. By August 5th, 80% of the water would be depleted and 60-70% of the crop would be a loss. These are all calculations on assumptions made by the extension center.

During the public meeting, a question was raised about crop insurance, a representative from Risk Management Agency stated failure of irrigation system is covered but it has to be proven that it was caused by a natural occurrence. As of right now, they are not sure what caused the tunnel collapse.

On Wednesday, Goshen County and the State of Wyoming declared a state of emergency. Scotts Bluff County has put in the paperwork to do so as well and Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts is expected to sign a declaration later in the day. This will allow for states and counties to potentially get funding for the rebuilding of the canal. The state does have a water sustainability fund in which Nebraska would fund 60% and the local irrigation district would fund the other 40%. Preston noted banks are committing to financial support and is talking regularly to lawmakers on how to find funding for the repairs.

As of right now, there are a lot of factors in play including laws that need to be adhered to. Preston understands the stress is there and hope the public understands they are doing everything they can to get water back through the canal as soon as possible.

Steve Pitts, a farmer in Scotts Bluff County, said he just started to get irrigation going before this happened. He added it was a stressful spring and is hopeful they can get water back into the system by next month. Pitts understands the irrigation districts are doing all they can but the information provided today to him was pretty vague. A former member of the Gering-Fort Laramie Irrigation District board, Pitts knows the system needs to be updated and also knows funding is tough to come by. He is hoping this will wake people up and show that funding needs to come from government entities and not just farmers.