Irrigation resumes but damage, questions remain

Brian Bonow turns a wheel to restore irrigation water to fields in western Nebraska. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
Wyoming hillside dug away to remove soil on top of collapsed tunnel (hole in tunnel is under metal slip forms, center). (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
Water flows through repaired tunnel, originally built in 1917. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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September 9, 2019 - 3:23pm

Irrigation water is flowing again to western Nebraska farms that were cut off by a tunnel collapse in eastern Wyoming. Farmers are glad to have it back. But in some cases, it’s too little, too late. And there’s still a lot of uncertainty about the future.


Brian Bonow bounces an old pickup along a dusty, sunflower-lined road near the bluffs south of Gering, Nebraska, and calls a local farmer.

“Hey Glen, it’s Brian. Hey, I’m up, I’m almost up here…if you’re around,” he said.

Bonow’s a ditch rider, working for the Gering-Ft. Laramie Irrigation District. And his job last week was to open the gates and turn the water back on for farmers like Glen Ross. Bonow stops, gives a few twists to a weathered metal wheel, and water starts flowing from the canal toward Ross’s fields.

Ross is glad to have it coming, but he jokes about the timing being a little off.

“Harvest time, we get our water,” he said with a laugh.

It’s the first water he’s gotten after more than a month of the peak summer growing season. Ross says the lack of irrigation has taken a toll.

“It hurt the beans pretty bad, but corn – I think the corn’s going to surprise us,” he said.

The story’s much the same on Kendall Busch’s farm, about 15 miles farther up the North Platte River valley near Mitchell, Nebraska. Getting into his pickup to a show a visitor around, Busch says the water’s too late for his beans.

“A week to 10 days sooner would have made a difference, but now the beans are starting to turn. It’s just too late to do any good. Right now we’re just kind of shutting down, and (will) concentrate for next year,” he said.

These beans are in a field that received irrigation water. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

These beans are in a field a few miles away that received no irrigation water. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

That includes using the water to build up moisture in the soil for next year’s crop. But Busch says getting irrigation water back, combined with the same heavy spring rains the government says caused the tunnel collapse, should help his corn.

“That’s the only thing that saved us this year. We had a wet, wet spring and we had great moisture going in before the canal broke,” he said, adding he’s hoping for 75-90 bushels an acre.

That’s about half the bushels per acre Busch says he could have gotten if he had water. One bit of good news is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s determination the collapse of the 102-year-old tunnel was weather-related. That means crop losses are covered by insurance, says Vanessa Reishus, a crop insurance specialist with Farm Credit Services.

“With the losses being covered…they will at least recoup some of the costs that they’ve put into growing the crop. They won’t get all of the money back, because just like any insurance, there’s kind of a deductible. A lot of people have maybe 75% coverage. So they’re covered for sometimes 65-75% of what their average crop is," Reishus said.

Even with those payments, Reishus says this year’s problems could hurt farmers, and the economy here, into the future. She says if current farmers who rent or sharecrop the land can’t afford to do so next year, it may be hard to find anyone to take over.

“The way the economy is right now, it's very difficult for people in the farming industry to actually make a profit. So taking on more ground just may not be something that they're willing to do — pick up additional ground or pay for additional ground when they know they can't make any money on it with the current economy and the prices of the commodities right now,” Reishus said.

Meanwhile, officials are wrestling with questions, including who will pay for repairs. State Sen. John Stinner, who represents the area in the Nebraska legislature, says the state has a role.

“The next step is to try to find funds. First of all, to try to reimburse the district for the money already spent. Secondarily, to take a look at the total amount of money that is going to have to do a permanent fix, not only on that tunnel, but to take a look at the other tunnels,” Stinner said.

So far, Gehring-Ft. Laramie Irrigation District Manager Rick Preston estimates the district has spent about $3 million for temporary repairs. But a permanent fix, for the tunnel that collapsed and two others of roughly the same age, will cost much more. Preston says one estimate is that inserting a “sleeve,” a fiber-resin tube within each of the tunnels, could cost $36 million.

Preston says officials will be seeking federal funds. Stinner, who chairs the legislature's appropriations committee, says the state might be able to come up with $5 million to $10 million, and the future of the ag-dependant North Platte Valley depends on getting the job done.

“It's hard for me to even put into words how significant this is. If we don't have water out here, if water isn't delivered, we don't have a valley,” Stinner said. 

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