It’s been one heck of a growing season in Nebraska, with one challenge after another: Floods, blizzards, one of the wettest springs on record, and now western Nebraska farmers are dealing with no water because of a July 17 irrigation tunnel collapse near Fort Laramie, Wyo. This lack of water to 107,000 acres of farmland in both Nebraska and Wyoming will place a tremendous economic burden on those who live in the Nebraska Panhandle. The canal provides water to 55,000 acres of Nebraska farmland. According to a new report issued by the University of Wyoming Extention and Nebraska Extention August 15, the economic impact to the area affected could climb as high as $89 million if the loss of irrigation water results in a total crop failure.
“I have three farms affected by this collapse. I grow dry edible beans, sugar beets, corn and a little alfalfa. The economic loss to this part of the state will be huge. All I can do is watch and wait,” longtime Scotts Bluff County Farm Bureau member Bob Busch said Aug. 5. Busch owns farmland near Mitchell and is a hired man for his son Kendall, who manages the farm.
Third generation farmers Justin and Michael Ann Relka are Scotts Bluff County Farm Bureau members, who have 1,100 acres, and 1,020 of which are now without water. They just took over ownership of Michael Ann’s family farm six years ago and grow dry edible beans, corn, sugar beets and a little alfalfa. Michael Ann works as an agriculturalist at Western Sugar, and her income has helped supplement their farm income. It is a very emotional time for their family, as they hope to bring a fourth generation back to this land. They are taking things day by day.
“While we don’t have water yet, we will eventually, and we have to decide where we are going to start irrigating first at that time. All the crops are important to us, but unfortunately, decisions on what is most beneficial to irrigate first at that point need to be made. If we could hit all the crops right away we would, but we know that is not possible. Other decisions we have to consider relate to harvest and what we can do outside our normal scope to help recover losses financially and ensure we still get the chance to farm in the future,” Justin Relka said.
Steve Nelson, Nebraska Farm Bureau president, traveled to the Scottsbluff area to visit with growers and the Wyoming Farm Bureau president Todd Fornstrom, to see the damage to crops and the canal firsthand.
“Crops are especially vulnerable at this stage. Every day that passes without water means greater losses. Nebraska Farm Bureau thanks Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts for issuing a state of emergency order so state officials could deploy state resources. Our hearts go out to the affected growers in Nebraska and Wyoming,” Nelson said.
The 14-foot-wide tunnel that collapsed is part of the Fort Laramie Irrigation Canal, delivering water from the Whelan Diversion Dam on the North Platte River to eastern Wyoming and western Nebraska. It is one of three tunnels that deliver water to growers in Wyoming and Nebraska.
“This tunnel is more than a century old. It was built by the Bureau of Reclamation but operated and maintained by two irrigation districts, Goshen Irrigation District in Wyoming and the Gering-Ft. Laramie Irrigation District in Nebraska. The districts collect fees from growers for this purpose,” said Jessica Groskopf, with the Panhandle Research and Extension Center.
According to Groskopf, the money collected from growers is assessed for operating and maintenance, and not for mitigating a major failure like this.
“This event has highlighted the fragileness of our water infrastructure system in Nebraska, and it places emphasis on how we as a state handle what happens across state lines. Nebraska’s state statute maintains that potential sources of monetary assistance such as the governor’s emergency fund or state water sustainability fund cannot give money to another state to fix or maintain the canal system.
There are many questions to be answered. How do we maintain these irrigation structures in the future? Who will pay for the current tunnel repairs, which could cost upwards of $10 million? How does crop insurance fit into this scenario? (See story below.) The burden of replacing aging infrastructure is a question that state and federal agencies must help answer,” Groskopf said.
A crew in Wyoming is working fast and furious to get water flowing again. Initial talks were to have a temporary fix and have water flowing by Aug. 15, Groskopf said. But from the day the breach is fixed, and water is allowed to flow down the canal again, it could take upward of seven days for the water to reach Nebraska crops.
“The Goshen/Gering Fort Laramie Canal is 2,200 feet long and it would take the water five days to travel from Whelan Diversion Dam on the North Platte River Down to the ditch. It will take another two or three days to have the water reach crops in Nebraska,” Busch, who has served on the Gering-Ft. Laramie Irrigation District board of directors for years, said.
Normally, Busch’s dry edible bean crop receives irrigation water four separate times in July and Aug. This is one of the most critical times that irrigation water is allocated during the growing season, because it is one of the driest months of the year.
“Aug. 5 is around the time we’d water a third time. This year our beans haven’t had any irrigation water. Our fields may look green, but it is deceiving. This year, I probably won’t see pod development in my dry-edible beans, and I won’t see corn ears develop, either. In early August we saw almost 100-degree days. All we can do now is pray for timely rains. With no rain. We are left without a crop, which means farmers won’t be spending money in town, leaving the Nebraska Panhandle reeling financially,” Busch said.
Justin and Michael Ann Relka are resilient, but this situation is new to them. They are emotional about losing their crops, but the effects of no water in this canal is bigger than most people think.
“People don’t understand that the water from this canal recharges our groundwater system. Our farms’ runoff goes to another ditch system. The impact of this event will be seen for years to come throughout our state,” Relka said.