SCOTTSBLUFF — After declaring an emergency over the collapse of a tunnel along the Ft. Laramie Irrigation Canal in Wyoming, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts asked how people could help.
The answer came in a hurry. Hod Kosman, CEO of Platte Valley Companies, called Travis Hiner with the Oregon Trail Community Foundation. In about 10 minutes, Kosman told the governor they had established a relief fund to provide assistance to those affected by the July 17 disaster.
In the early morning hours of July 17, a 2,200-foot long, 14-foot diameter tunnel 160 feet below the surface of the Ft. Laramie canal collapsed. The water backup breached the canal banks, forcing the Bureau of Reclamation to shut down delivery of irrigation water. In the local area alone, about 105,000 acres of crops sit in the summer sun without water.
Both Ricketts and Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon are in frequent contact as professionals have been called in to assess the damage and determine the best way forward, Kosman said.
“This couldn’t have come at a worse time because we’re right in the middle of our growing season,” Kosman said. “The real issue we discussed with the governor was whether crop insurance would cover the losses. There are millions of dollars invested in a crop. At $600 an acre just for inputs, there’s a lot of money at stake.”
While the Ft. Laramie Canal system is owned by the Bureau of Reclamation, its operation and maintenance falls on the local districts, including the Goshen County Irrigation District and the Gering-Ft. Laramie Irrigation District. So it’s the landowners who bear the cost.
“Any dollars not covered by disaster and other funds will eventually be paid for through an assessment on the farm ground,” Kosman said. “That’s one more expense, one more fixed cost for the farmers, which is just another burden, especially if they have no crop to sell.”
Platte Valley Companies and the Oregon Trail Community Foundation are now accepting donations to help with relief efforts. Kosman said his company will match the first $10,000. Since last Friday, half that amount has been raised.
He said the irrigation districts need funding right away to bring in specialized equipment, help crews that are busy repairing the damage, and to help provide relief to local producers left without water.
The longer the ditches remain empty, the greater the potential crop loss. Plus, irrigation water is essential for helping establish the soil for next year’s planting.
Beans and corn will be the first to be affected because the beans are starting to bloom and the corn is also starting to tassel. Sugar beets may be able to find underground water through their taproots, but the lack of irrigation will affect producers’ ability to harvest the crop.
“The governor is pushing the story out on his social media and into his circles of influence,” Kosman said. “The consequences are dire for a loss of water at this time.”
Prior to 1909 when the Bureau of Reclamation began building the canals, there were about 2,400 acres of irrigated ground along the North Platte River in Nebraska. By 1930, that number had jumped to 230,000 acres.
“I know we’ll have a robust response to this relief fund,” Kosman said. “People care in this part of the world and they step up to the plate to help any way they can.”
Donations may be dropped off at the Oregon Trail Community Foundation office or at any Platte Valley Bank branch in Wyoming and Nebraska.