Irrigation tunnel breach could dry up crops |

Irrigation tunnel breach could dry up crops

Hannah Gill
for Tri-State Livestock News
An irrigation tunnel collapse could keep farmers down the pipe from being able to use water for 30 days. It is estimated the region could suffer half a billion dollars in lost income. Photo by Cole Coxbill, Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation

It has been over a week since an irrigation tunnel collapsed in Goshen County, Wyoming, and a temporary solution is currently being implemented to repair the tunnel, located about a mile and a half south of the town of Fort Laramie. The tunnel collapsed in the early morning of July 17 and the blockage caused water to back up to the Whalen Dam, 13 miles upstream, and breach the canal bank, flooding surrounding farmland and washing out a quarter mile of the canal.

The canal provides irrigation water to approximately 107,000 acres in Wyoming and Nebraska, and because no water can pass through the collapsed tunnel, crops that rely on that irrigation water are now at risk.

“We’re looking at a pretty tremendous loss,” says Preston Stricker, a Goshen County farmer. Stricker has 750 acres of farmland under the Goshen Irrigation District that irrigation tunnel fed. “The corn is just entering right now its reproductive or pollination stage, which is its most critical time of stress and any stress you put on there is compounded every day and every hour, it stresses and it hurts the plant even more.”

The Goshen and Gering-Fort Laramie Irrigation Districts looked at options to repair the tunnel as quickly as possible, and initially, they favored the option to remove the debris and sleeve the existing tunnel, which is 2,160 feet long with a 14-foot diameter.

“We thought it would work, we thought it would be a permanent fix,” says Billy Coxbill, a Goshen County farmer and chairman of the Goshen Irrigation District board at Wednesday’s public meeting held at the Eastern Wyoming College in Torrington. “We wanted our water.”

After calling many pipe manufacturers, the districts found HOBAS Pipe based out of Texas, but the largest diameter they could make was 10 and a half feet wide. The understanding was that the material of the pipe could run water fast enough, that the output would be the same and the tunnel could be fixed in three weeks, four at the most. After HOBAS began building pipe joints, engineers discovered that the smaller diameter pipe would actually decrease the existing tunnel’s output by an estimated 80 percent. The plan had to be scrapped.

“The same company, they go into big cities and rebuild tunnels for the sewers,” Coxbill says. “The plan is, they make these ribs that fit that, they’re going to put a rib every four feet to make it safe, anchor it to the cement, another rib, anchor it to the cement, and keep working their way down like that, that way it makes it safe for the people going in there to start digging the cave in out. They will work as fast as they can, as safe as they can. They plan on working around the clock. Once we get past the bad spot and can see daylight through it, we’re going to turn the water on to see if the water goes through. It’s a temporary fix, that’s kind of where we’re at today.”

The temporary fix is estimated to cost 2 million dollars, which has already been secured by the irrigation districts, and shouldn’t take more than 20 days to complete. Crews have been working around the clock to clear the tunnel of debris, and the contractor began work on the temporary fix on June 26.

“It’s not about every week, it’s about every day and hour to us,” Shawn Booth says, a Goshen County farmer and the secretary/treasurer for the Goshen Irrigation District.

When weighing the cost to repair the tunnel and canal, Booth says that the economic impact of the collapse will be over half a billion dollars to the local economy.

“There’s a lot of weight in these decisions,” he says. “We will get the tunnel fixed as fast as we can so the structure can sustain itself long enough to get the rest of this irrigation season done.”

But for farmers like Stricker, who raises primarily corn, edible beans and some alfalfa, it may be too late by then.

“We live right at the end of the Gering-Fort Laramie Canal,” he says. “The tunnel collapsed at 3 AM on Wednesday and it took until Friday at 2 PM until that last pivot shut off.”

If the repairs go well and do take the estimated 20 days, Stricker and his neighbors will have been without water for at least 30 days.

Stricker guesses that within another week, his corn will be around a 10 to 15 percent loss, and within two weeks he will be looking at anywhere from 40 to 60 percent loss, but it’s hard to assume when the situation is so unprecedented.

“I’ve asked my dad and all the old timers and nobody has ever witnessed anything to this degree of stress on the crop, so its hard to put our fingers on whats going to happen and that’s kind of the hardest thing to come to grip with,” Stricker says.

Stricker is the third generation in his family to farm the land that his grandfather bought in 1944, even back then the tunnel was the source of irrigation water for the farm.

“It’s basically built our family, that tunnel,” he says. “I mean, by our work but the use of the water that goes through it.”

On July 22 the Goshen County Board of Commissioners officially declared the collapse as a local disaster and the same day, Gov. Mark Gordon visited the tunnel damage and declared a state of emergency, signing an executive order to more easily aid the county, as well as allow the trucks from Texas to be able to drive non-stop to deliver the ribs for the tunnel.

The collapse was caused by a massive sink hole directly above the tunnel where an estimated 4,400 cubic yards of dirt fell in to what engineers are guessing was a void directly above the tunnel, likely due to the unusual torrential rain storms in June and early July.

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