SCOTTSBLUFF — When will water be back in the canal?

Officials gave no definite answer in either of Monday’s public meetings hosted by the Nebraska and Wyoming irrigation districts impacted by the disaster. District officers updated nearly 400 people who met at the UNL Panhandle Research and Extension Center Monday morning, and in the Eastern Wyoming College Auditorium that afternoon.

Earlier estimates of mid-August deliveries seemed to be pushed later, maybe into early September, because of conditions in the tunnel, which failed on July 17. Early that morning, the roof of the tunnel carrying irrigation water to fields in the Goshen Irrigation District in Wyoming, and the Gering/Fort Laramie Irrigation District in Nebraska, collapsed. This resulted in water backing up, increasing pressure on the canal, which ultimately was breached, leaving a 300-foot long hole in the down-hill side wall, and flooding nearby properties.

Since then, experts from around the country have examined the situation, and efforts are now underway to return water deliveries to thirsty crops. The breach in the Fort Laramie Canal has been repaired, and is ready to deliver water when the tunnel is operating again.

Monday’s meetings focused on progress of the tunnel restoration, which is undergoing temporary repairs in preparation for a metal pipe, that will be manufactured section by section in Germany. That “sleeve” will total 2,200 feet in length.

According to Rick Preston, G/FL district manager, three crews are working on the tunnel in eight-hour shifts, 24 hours a day. Five are inside the tunnel, with two outside monitoring the air supply and managing the equipment.

The inside crew is removing the soil that fell into the tunnel, using a 4-foot square box to remove material so a series of metal braces can be placed to support the walls and ceiling. Each box load takes about an hour to complete. As of Monday morning, they were 40 feet into the tunnel.

“Today, we’re up to the collapse,” Preston said, adding that there is crumbled concrete, but no sign of any rebar.

“We’re not sure how long this is, but it is very dangerous, and we’re using extreme caution.

“At this time, the canal itself is ready for water,” Preston said.

According to Preston, a $4 million emergency loan from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is financing this operation, which has an estimated $2.8 million price tag, as well as $1 million for the canal repair, plus some more long-term restoration projects.

Preston said more detailed financial information will be available by the end of this week.

“Everyone is doing a tremendous job,” he said. “The public has been very supportive with food and monetary donations.”

After reviewing progress of the tunnel restoration, the GID board of directors and General Manager Rob Posten reviewed restoration efforts and visits by various government agencies involved in determining the impact of the disaster. He said inspections have been made on the other tunnels, but he hasn’t received results.

Of major concern to all agriculture producers, the project was updated by board members.

“It’s not just the value of the land, but the impact on the whole community,” said board member and Veteran area producer Shawn Booth. “Will we still be able to afford to farm?”

While this 2019 irrigation season slips away, produces are looking at ways to salvage some production on their land. One proposal is to extend the irrigation season. There would be a potential for some small grain crops, as well as recharging the soil moisture for next year.

The presence of Wyoming’s U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, and Wyoming State Sen. Sherry Steinmetz, at the Torrington meeting drew comments on how the state and the U.S. Congress could help the farmers and ranchers.

“This is just as important as roads and bridges,” offered one gentleman, referring to the ongoing demands for federal aid for the country’s transportation system. “The entire irrigation system needs help.”

There also were suggestions for working with such Wyoming departments as the Wyoming Water Development Commission, which has assisted the GID with earlier, smaller projects.

Steinmetz concluded the meeting by encouraging producers to participate in public meetings later this week, with the State Water Commission, and the State Loan and Investment Board.

“I’m fully aware that more funds are needed,” said Nebraska U.S. Congressman Adrian Smith during the Scottsbluff session. “All hands are on deck at the federal and state levels. I’m hopeful that some federal funds will be forthcoming.”

He added that he is working with Wyoming’s U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, as well.

Barrasso told the Wyoming audience, “I came to listen. I also met with county commissioners and the board, and visited the tunnel.”

“I’m optimistic,” Booth said. “We’ll take water any time we can get it, and we’ll look at all the options for a long-term fix.”

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