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Water expected to be restored by end of week to farmers affected by tunnel collapse

Water expected to be restored by end of week to farmers affected by tunnel collapse

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Irrigation Canal Tunnel Collapse

Farmer Buz Oliver stands at the mouth of an intact tunnel for the irrigation canal last month in Fort Laramie.

Farmers in the Platte Valley should expect to have water by the end of this week, according to the Goshen Irrigation District.

“Contractors and irrigation district managers are hopeful to resume water service in the Fort Laramie Canal for water deliveries by the end of this week,” the district announced in a press release.

An irrigation tunnel in Goshen County collapsed last month, leaving nearly 800 farmers and more than 100,000 acres of crops between Wyoming and the Nebraska Panhandle without water. Crews finished the major construction on the tunnel Monday, according to the release, and are now finishing final cleanup efforts.

The tunnel is part of an irrigation system that spans more than 100 miles between Wyoming and Nebraska, beginning at the Guernsey Reservoir and ending in Gering, Nebraska.

“Farmers and landowners are asked for their patience as the water will be released slower than typical, until the canal capacity has been reached. Delivery rates and quantities will be announced once the flows, stability and holding rate of the canal is determined,” the release reads.

“They’ve done just enough to try to run some water,” Robert Coxbill, chair of the Goshen Irrigation District, said.

He said the water will have to move slowly to test the repairs. It will also be the first time the canal that washed out upstream from the collapse will be tested.

The Missouri-based company hired to repair the tunnel, SAK Construction, has been working on the repairs since late July. The process included removing several tons of dirt that caved into the tunnel after a 150-foot wide sinkhole opened up above the collapse. The crew then had to stabilize the inside of the tunnel with grouting and steel rods.

The price tag on the repairs are significant. Early estimates were around $3 million just for the short-term fix, but Coxbill previously said it would be closer to $4 million.

Crop losses

The repair won’t save the crops lost this year, but it is expected to hold for at least the next season.

“We’ve got some ease of mind that it will be ready for next year,” Coxbill said.

Experts have projected the crop losses will cost nearly $90 million in sales.

Some of the losses will be covered by federal crop insurance, a decision the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Friday after more than a month of deliberation.

The decision came 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.

While this temporary repair is expected to last for at least the next year, solutions for a permanent fix are still up in the air.

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 chooses.

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

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 previously told the Star-Tribune.

Funding questions

With the massive price tag have come questions about who will be responsible for funding the fix. The Bureau of Reclamation owns the tunnel, which was built in 1917, along with two other tunnels the same age in the same irrigation system.

But the irrigation districts that manage the system have been party to an operation and maintenance agreement with the Bureau since 1926.

Officials from the Goshen Irrigation District in Wyoming and the Gering-Ft. Laramie Irrigation District in Nebraska have said their lawyers are reviewing that agreement to see if the Bureau has any legal responsibility to help pay for the fix.

Bureau of Reclamation spokesperson Jay Dallman previously told the Star-Tribune the Bureau has no liability, but has since walked that statement back, saying “we wouldn’t make that determination.”

The irrigation districts and the Bureau conduct joint inspections of the tunnels in the system annually. The Bureau also inspected the two in-tact tunnels in the system after the collapse. Dallman said the reports from those inspections are not ready yet, but the most recent inspections before the collapse showed no problems.

The Bureau has provided some support to the districts in the form of a $4 million loan with a 50-year repayment plan.

The Goshen Irrigation District is also looking for help from the Wyoming State Loan and Investment Board. The district submitted a grant application July 27 as a “special district” hoping for $3,197,180 from the Mineral Royalty Grant fund to pay for the emergency tunnel and canal repair.

Staff overseeing those applications recommended the irrigation district be denied its request because an irrigation district is not considered a “special district” under that grant fund’s criteria.

Wyoming’s Office of State Lands and Investments has, however, offered to work with the irrigation district to find a funding source it qualifies for. The Clean Water State Revolving Fund and the Joint Powers Act have both been floated as possibilities.

Since the collapse, state officials have restarted talks of creating an emergency fund to pay for future massive infrastructure failures. The Wyoming legislature’s Select Committee on Water voted to draft a bill creating such a fund during a recent meeting. The fund is expected to be modeled after state’s existing fire suppression account and would maintain a balance of $5 million, likely to be funded by user fees.

The bill draft could be introduced at the committee’s next meeting in November, Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devil’s Tower, said, adding that some additional funds could be included in the omnibus water bill introduced as part of the state’s 2020 budget this autumn.

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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