Emergency declared after canal breach shuts off irrigation water to Panhandle county (copy) (copy)

Water blew out the sides of this irrigation canal after a tunnel collapsed and caused a backup. The collapse cost Wyoming and Nebraska $89 million.

LINCOLN — Western Nebraska’s losses from an irrigation tunnel collapse could rank with those from floods farther east, a state lawmaker from the region said Thursday.

“This breach couldn’t have happened at a worse time,” said State Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard. “It will be devastating for the Panhandle.”

Some 54,000 acres of irrigated crops in Scotts Bluff County abruptly lost access to water at the height of summer when the tunnel along the Gering-Fort Laramie Canal in Wyoming collapsed last week. The canal carries irrigation water from the North Platte River to farmers in western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming.

Erdman said officials hope to make temporary repairs that could have water heading down the canal again within three weeks. That would help the situation but would not be soon enough to prevent substantial crop losses, which could push some farmers over the edge economically.

“Every morning those ag people go out there and see their crops dying,” he said. “It’s just an agony.”

The main crops in the area are corn, dry edible beans such as Great Northerns, sugar beets and alfalfa hay, Erdman said. Corn and beans are especially vulnerable because they are at a critical stage in their growth. Every week that passes without water means greater losses.

Alfalfa, however, is more resilient and could produce another decent cutting of hay if it gets water next month, he said. Sugar beet fields will need moisture for the beets to be dug out of the ground.

Sen. John Stinner of Gering said the situation has left area farmers praying for cooler weather and rain to mitigate the loss of irrigation water. The forecast calls for a couple of chances of rain in the next two weeks.

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“All of us are watching the weather and hopeful for some kind of a break,” he said. “It’s a serious issue out here.”

Officials from multiple state, local and federal agencies in Nebraska and Wyoming have mobilized in response to the collapse. Nebraska Sens. Deb Fischer and Ben Sasse each issued statements saying they’re working with other agencies to find solutions. Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts and Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon issued disaster declarations.

Ricketts flew to the area Thursday evening, along with the state directors of agriculture and natural resources, to meet with farmers, agricultural processors, local officials, businesses and representatives of the state’s congressional delegation.

Officials from the irrigation district and natural resources district also had been expected.

Ricketts spokesman Taylor Gage said the state is looking at all potential resources to deal with the situation.

But there are big questions about what can be used. Some state resources, such as the governor’s emergency fund or the state water sustainability fund, may be limited to paying for work done only inside the state, said Stinner, who chairs the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee.

It’s unclear whether farmers could qualify for crop insurance based on the situation, he said. It’s also unclear whether the extent of the damage could qualify for a federal disaster declaration.

The collapse happened July 17. The irrigation system, which runs above and below ground, delivers water from a pool created by the Whalen Diversion Dam on the North Platte River to eastern Wyoming and western Nebraska. It runs about 130 miles.

The damaged portion is in Goshen County, Wyoming, where a 2,200-foot tunnel cuts through a sizable hill, Stinner said.

Michael Pearlman, a spokesman for the Wyoming governor, said the tunnel that collapsed dates to about 1910 and is about 100 feet below ground. The collapse blocked the flow of water through the 14-foot-diameter tunnel, causing water to back up. When the backed-up water surfaced above ground, it blew out the sides of the canal.

Erdman, who attended a meeting Saturday in Torrington, Wyoming, said current plans call for installing temporary reinforcing material along the walls and ceiling of the tunnel and removing some of the dirt and concrete from the collapsed area. The job has to be done carefully to prevent more of the hilltop from sliding into the sinkhole. About 1,300 feet of the canal upstream from the tunnel also will need repairs.

Work on a more permanent fix will be undertaken later in the fall and winter, when this year’s irrigation season is over.

He said the temporary fixes are estimated at about $3 million, including $1.5 million for the tunnel reinforcing and $1.5 million for repairs to the canal. A permanent solution could cost $6-7 million.

Stinner said officials have not figured out the cause of the collapse yet. But he said the area had an exceptionally wet spring and the sodden ground may have caused extra stress.

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Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-473-9583.

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