GERING — In the wake of a canal tunnel collapse near Fort Laramie, Wyoming, farmers are trying to piece together a crop and figure out what to do next.

The July 17 collapse of a 2,200-foot long tunnel caused a canal breach, forcing the Bureau of Reclamation to shut down delivery of irrigation water. The situation has left approximately 102,000 acres of land in Wyoming and Nebraska served by the Goshen and Gering-Fort Laramie Irrigation Districts and the Wright and Murphy Ditch Company without a water source.

There is no official word on what caused the tunnel failure in the 102-year-old system, but Rick Preston, general manager of the Gering-Fort Laramie Irrigation District, said Tuesday that the dirt contractor is optimistic that there could be water in 10-12 days.

Crews are removing soil above the collapse, which is taking pressure off the tunnel, Preston added. They also are testing the soil for compaction and moisture.

“They hope to reach the collapsed area of the tunnel by Saturday, and hope to keep going from there,” Preston said. “We’re just staying out of their way, and offering help when we can.”

Chet Cochran, who said about half of his crop of pinto beans, corn and alfalfa is without water, said part of the issue for growers is simply the time that it takes to fix such an unusual situation. He said even with a two-week fix, by the time the water is released and reaches some of the crops, it would be nearly a month without water.

Curt Schaneman, who grows beets, beans, corn and alfalfa on about 600 affected acres, said there is little that growers can do.

“Gering Valley typically does not have wells and ground water like there is north of the river,” he said. “As of now, I don’t see anything that we can really do. ... As of right now, we’re praying for more rain and hope that we get a reprieve from this soon.”

Leo Hoehn said he is simply at the mercy of the water on his 600 affected acres of corn and sugar beets. He said he will likely harvest the corn for silage because the yield would be significantly reduced if it is allowed to mature. Coupled with the late start to planting season because of early-season rain, Hoehn said the irrigation issues couldn’t have come at a worse time.

Schaneman said even when water does return, it will be too late to help some crops, such as beans that have already bloomed and will have to be harvested soon.

“The corn and beans are going to be what they’re gonna be by that point,” he said.

For Cochran, a partial crop looks to be the best that will come of this season.

“About half of it is looking decent,” he said. “The other half is needing rain bad. I don’t know how it’s going to hold on from here.”

Hoehn said there will definitely be an impact on all growers in the affected region.

“It will certainly impact our income,” he said. “It’s going to impact our balance sheets. It’s going to make it difficult. Fortunately for us, we have other land that’s not affected that we’ll still be able to work with.”

One word sums up the irrigation issues for Schaneman.

“It’s catastrophic,” he said. “We have crop insurance that will help some, but we don’t want to farm for crop insurance. We’d much rather have a crop.”

Crop insurance doesn’t cover all of the expenses involved with farming, and Cochran said that the issues facing farmers will trickle down to other businesses as well, including equipment dealers who may not see the level of investment that would have been expected in a normal season. He said the fall will be interesting to see what happens, but is hopeful that better prices this year will at least be helpful with what crop is harvested.

“We’re going to have to get creative,” Cochran said. “There’s not going to be any new purchases, that’s for sure.”

Despite the projected loss, Schaneman said he understands that this is a most unusual circumstance.

“The only reason we can grow at all is irrigation,” he said. “Water is our livelihood. You can get mad. You can get upset. You can get discouraged. The proof in the pudding at the end of the day is that you’ve got to keep going.”

Officials and workers putting all of their efforts into getting the water back flowing are to be commended, Schaneman said.

“We know that all of the people working on this feel as deeply about it as we do,” he said. “This is our livelihood. This is our life. I know they’re all doing everything they can.”

Preston praised the people and organizations involved in solving the problem, from the ground crews, to the governor, to the Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the canal and tunnel, although it is not financially responsible for its upkeep and repairs, according to legal documents.

“We’re still a long way from water, and we have no idea yet how to make permanent changes, but we’re closer every day,” Preston said. “It’s a big hurdle, but with today’s technology we’ll find a way. The biggest problem is where to find the money, and we’re looking every day.”

A fund has been established to help growers. Donations can be dropped off at the Oregon Trail Community Foundation office in the Railway Office Plaza in Scottsbluff or at any Platte Valley Bank branch location in Nebraska or Wyoming. Donations can also be made online at otcf.org or pvbank.com/give.

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Reporter

Mark McCarthy is a reporter with the Star-Herald. He can be reached at 308-632-9049 or via email at mark.mccarthy@starherald.com.

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