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Wyoming and Nebraska farmers affected by an irrigation tunnel collapse last month will be covered by federal crop insurance, a U.S. Department of Agriculture spokesman told the Star-Tribune on Friday.

The department has been deliberating over the issue for more than a month, after an irrigation tunnel in Goshen County collapsed in mid-July, cutting off water to more than 100,000 acres of crops between Wyoming and the Nebraska panhandle.

In a statement issued Friday afternoon, Bill Northey, USDA under secretary for farm production and conservation, said the determination was made after coordinating with state and local officials to learn the cause of the collapse.

“With assessments by the Department of the Interior and the National Weather Service, it has been determined that the cause of the collapse was weather-related. Based on that, USDA’s Risk Management Agency has notified its crop insurance providers that losses stemming from the canal failure can be covered under crop insurance policies,” Northey said in the release.

The statement goes on to urge farmers to reach out to their insurance agents to file a claim.

The decision comes after Wyoming and Nebraska Congress members wrote a joint letter Wednesday to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue urging him to expedite the USDA crop insurance decision for the affected areas in both states.

“On behalf of the producers in Wyoming and Nebraska, we request USDA Risk Management Agency evaluate available reports and make a prompt determination to qualify these extraordinary circumstances as an insurable event resulting from adverse weather conditions and failure of the irrigation water supply for purposes of crop insurance coverage,” the letter to Perdue reads.

The letter was signed by Wyoming Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso, Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, Nebraska Sens. Ben Sasse and Deb Fischer, and Nebraska Rep. Adrian Smith.

Affected crops have been five weeks without water, and many are already too parched to save. Farmers had worried those losses wouldn’t be covered by the federal crop insurance program. A spokesman for the USDA previously told the Star-Tribune the department was still waiting to learn what caused the tunnel collapse. If weather was not found to be a culprit, the insurance would not cover the losses.

National Weather Service data shows that the area received 200-300 percent above normal levels for precipitation for the past year, and the area around the tunnel collapse received 100-200 percent above normal precipitation in the 30 days before the tunnel failure.

Given that data, the USDA determined weather was at least partially responsible for the collapse.

Enzi, Barrasso and Cheney have each issued statements in response to the USDA decision.

“This is a critical time for many Wyoming producers. This decision will help provide greater certainty to our farmers affected by the tunnel collapse so they can prepare for the winter and the next season,” Enzi said in the statement.

Cheney and Barrasso echoed that sentiment, with Barrasso adding, “I will continue to work with Governor Gordon, the irrigation district and the Bureau of Reclamation to ensure the community has the resources needed to complete the reconstruction process.”

The crop insurance will offer farmers some relief if they’ve opted in to the program and their losses are enough to meet whatever policy they pay for. Most farmers have some level of coverage under the federal program.

National Crop Insurance Services spokeswoman Laurie Langstraat said 90 percent of all crops in the U.S. are covered under the federal program, but the level of protection varies like any insurance plan.

“If (farmers) selected 70 percent coverage, they would need to lose 30 percent of their crop before they saw a dime,” Langstraat previously told the Star-Tribune.

Langstraat said the most a farmer can insure is 85 percent of their crop, though on average, farmers opt for a 75 percent coverage level. The hope is that even with a complete loss, producers can get something back.

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In a statement, Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation President Todd Fornstrom praised the decision.

“With so many unknowns still out there regarding the tunnel repair, it is helpful that this decision has been issued to help the farmers with some certainty in their management of this difficult situation,” he said in the statement. “This is a good step in the right direction for a little bit of relief for those farmers with crop insurance who have been facing uncertainty on whether or not their crop losses would be insurable.”

Goshen County farmers left to deal with inevitable crop losses following tunnel collapse

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Crews are still working to repair the collapsed tunnel. As of Friday morning, the sinkhole above the caved-in tunnel had been almost completely stabilized, and the dirt over the tunnel’s roof is almost gone, said Robert Coxbill, chairman of the Goshen Irrigation District board.

As crews get closer to finishing the short-term repair, leaders of both affected irrigation districts have been meeting with state officials to try to secure funding to pay for a long-term fix.

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Early estimates put a long-term repair around $10 million, but the irrigation districts are now getting quotes upward of $68 million for whatever repair the group decides on.

Lawyers and engineers are looking into two possible solutions, both with price tags around the $68 million figure, Coxbill said.

One idea is to sleeve the tunnel with a 13-foot wide fiberglass tube. Gering-Ft. Laramie Irrigation District manager Rick Preston said that solution would entail shipping the tube from Turkey. The shipping costs alone would be roughly $2 million.

One concern with that solution is that it would run less water than farmers need to adequately feed their crops. The current tunnel is 14 feet wide, so the 13 foot sleeve would reduce the tunnel’s capacity.

The other possible solution would involve getting rid of the century-old tunnel altogether and digging a canal instead. The tunnel currently runs more than 100 feet underground in parts. For the canal idea to hold, the irrigation districts would need to reroute a portion of the system around a mountain and across a stretch of the Oregon Trail.

Coxbill said experts are looking into the feasibility of that plan and whether historic preservation laws would allow it. Regardless of which idea moves forward, the irrigation districts will need money to make it happen.

“It runs into millions of dollars no matter what we do, and we don’t have millions of dollars,” Coxbill said.

Coxbill said they districts have been working with state and federal agencies to look for money and were considering selling municipal bonds to front some of the immediate costs. That idea was shot down, however, in favor of waiting on state or federal support, Coxbill said.

There still isn’t a definite date the current crews will be ready to run water through the tunnel, Coxbill said. But he hopes this year’s repair will hold for at least the next season while officials look for funding for the permanent fix.

Tunnel collapse could cost Wyoming, Nebraska $89 million in economic losses

On top of the new repair estimates, crop losses could cost the two states $89 million if affected crops are a total loss this season.

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Follow city reporter Morgan Hughes on Twitter @morganhwrites.

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Local Government Reporter

Morgan Hughes primarily covers local government. After growing up in rural Wisconsin, she graduated from Marquette University in 2018. She moved to Wyoming shortly after and covered education in Cheyenne before joining the Star-Tribune in May 2019.

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