Gov. Pete Ricketts Declares Emergency In Panhandle After Major Irrigation Tunnel Collapses

Gov. Pete Ricketts Declares Emergency In Panhandle After Major Irrigation Tunnel Collapses
Water blew out the sides of this irrigation canal after another portion of the system — a tunnel — collapsed and caused water to back up. OFFICE OF WYOMING GOV. MARK GORDON

The collapse of an irrigation tunnel in Wyoming poses such severe economic consequences for farmers along the Nebraska-Wyoming border that governors in both states have declared an emergency.

More than 100,000 acres of ag land, about half in Nebraska and the other half in Wyoming, is affected, officials say. In Nebraska, the collapse is preventing water from reaching crops in Scotts Bluff County, according to Gov. Pete Ricketts’ office.

“Our farmers in western Nebraska have lost access to water at a critical time in the growing season,” Ricketts said in a statement accompanying the declaration. With limited to no irrigated water into the foreseeable future, the situation creates “an extreme economic burden on the impacted area,” the declaration stated.

Corn, sugar beets and hay are among the crops grown in the region.

The emergency declarations free up state resources to assist with the problem. Workers are still assessing the situation and determining whether there’s a way to work around the collapse, given that repairs could take a couple weeks or more.

The collapse happened July 17, according to Michael Pearlman, spokesman for Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon. The irrigation system, which runs above and below ground, delivers water from a pool created by the Whalen Diversion Dam on the North Platte River to eastern Wyoming and western Nebraska. It runs about 130 miles.

The damaged portion is in Goshen County, Wyoming.

Pearlman said the tunnel that collapsed dates to about 1910 and is about 100 feet below ground. The collapse blocked the flow of water through the 14-foot-diameter tunnel, causing water to back up. When the backed-up water surfaced above ground, it blew out the sides of the canal.

Authorities have stopped the flow of water into the canal and tunnel, and once enough water drains out of it, they’ll be able to inspect the damage. That may happen on Friday.

“(Ag producers) are faced with not having a crop this year,” said Rick Preston, director of the Gering-Ft. Laramie Irrigation District. “So it’s vital we do everything we can over the next couple of weeks to address this catastrophic failure. We have to get the lifeblood back into the valley.”

This report includes material from the Associated Press and the Scottsbluff Star-Herald.