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Irrigation collapse affecting crops, economy as repairs proceed

In eastern Wyoming a huge earthmoving-and-tunneling operation's underway. Crews are trying to fix an irrigation tunnel that collapsed a month ago. That cutoff's already affecting crops – and the economy – in Nebraska.

On a Wyoming hillside, an orange excavator sits in a sandy pit, taking huge bites from the soil with its bucket. The operator raises the bucket, rotates 90 degrees, and dumps the soil into the first of a long line of yellow trucks. Half a dozen bucket loads later, the truck crawls up a ramp to a hill that's being created, dumps its load, and returns for more.

The hole being dug is on top of an irrigation tunnel, more than 100 feet below, that collapsed a month ago. The idea is to relieve pressure from above, while another crew digs out the tunnel from within.

At the tunnel entrance, a 60-inch fan blows air into the tunnel, which is 14 feet in diameter and 2,200 feet long. The part that collapsed is about a third of the way in. As he led a couple of reporters toward that spot, James Byrd, a manager with SAK, the company doing the repairs, talked about the structure, which was built in 1917. “This is the original tunnel. If you look up in the roof, and we go down through here, you'll see some other cracks in the roof,” Byrd said, pointing.

A little farther along, crews have installed steel ribs every few inches to shore up the concrete. “This roof crack up here, we just didn't like it. So we felt like we should put some steel right here, and then we continued pumping grout,” he said.

The plan is for crews to dig through the collapsed section, reinforcing as they go, then clean out the rest of the tunnel so water can start flowing again to more than 100,000 acres of farmland – half in the Goshen Irrigation District of eastern Wyoming, half in the Gering-Ft. Laramie District in Nebraska.

Some of that land is farmed by Kendall Busch, who grows corn, beans and sugar beets south of Mitchell, Nebraska, about 40 miles away. Driving around his farm last week, Busch acknowledged some crops still look OK. But he said how much those crops will yield is already being affected by the lack of water. “It's dwindling every day. Until you have to – you can drive these roads and see it every day, you don't realize the damage that it's doing,” he said.

Busch showed a bean plant that's been deprived of water. “A lot of these pods will never fill out with a bean in it and that stuff. It's pretty much done,” he said.

To Busch, it's like seeing his investment in this year's crop shrivel before his eyes. “All of our input costs are out in the crop right now. You know, everything that I made last year – last fall, after selling all my commodities -- is put right back out here on seed, fertilizer and fuel. So if I don't harvest a crop, I don't get that back. And if I harvest half a crop, I only get half that back,” he said.

After a historically wet spring, which may have contributed to the tunnel collapse, Bush said farmers wanted dry weather so they could plant and get their crops started. “We've changed our tune in the last three weeks. You know, we go from praying for the rain to stop, now we're praying for the rains to come back,” he said.

If irrigation water is restored soon, that'll help some. But even though he won't know how much he's lost until the actual harvest, Busch said it's already affecting his plans. “I myself don't have any plans of updating any equipment, vehicles, anything like that,” he said.

John Berge, manager of the North Platte Natural Resources District, which helps manage groundwater in the area, said if you add enough of those individual decisions like that together, you'll have a huge economic impact. “It's going to affect us all. There's $36 million worth of inputs in the ground right now in the Gering-Ft. Laramie Irrigation District, I've been told. There's a potential economic impact of upwards of $100 million with crop losses. There's the potential that crop insurance may not cover those losses,” Berge said.

That coverage will depend on what is determined to have caused the tunnel collapse – a question still being considered. In any event, Berge said there are 26 irrigation districts in his area, and all of them have infrastructure that's about a century old, like the tunnel that collapsed.    “The infrastructure situation is, I think, bad. And ultimately I think that were going to have to face the hard truth that maintenance, repair and replacement of this stuff is going to cost tens of millions of dollars over: time,” he said.

Back at the tunnel, contractor James Byrd said his company estimates  installing new fiber resin pipes inside the tunnel that's being repaired, along with two other similar-age tunnels on the system, would by itself cost more than $30 million.

But for right now, Byrd is just concentrating on the job at hand. Asked when he'll have a better idea when the water might be restored, Byrd's got an answer ready: “You make your guess and then I'll bet on how good your guess was,” he said, adding “I don't know.”

Back at his farm, Kendall Busch said he is waiting for answers, too. “We don't know where this is going to end up at. You know, this is one of those ‘to be continued' stories right now


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Excavating soil and trucking it away from on top of the tunnel (Video by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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Walking into the tunnel under repair. During operation, water fills entire tunnel; yellow tube on upper right is for ventilation during repairs.  (Video by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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