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Wyoming And Nebraska Farmers Concerned After Critical Irrigation Tunnel Collapses


Near the Wyoming-Nebraska border, the collapse of a critical irrigation tunnel is stressing farmers and their crops. The deep tunnel is more than a century old. It connects to a long canal system, and its collapse has left hundreds of farmers without water. From NET News, Fred Knapp reports.

FRED KNAPP, BYLINE: Standing on this eastern Wyoming hillside on a sunny day, you can see giant, yellow earth-moving machines crawling along, trying to repair a huge, brown scar on the landscape. That scar's near an enormous hole where tons of earth collapsed into a tunnel more than a hundred feet below the surface.

That tunnel is a key link in a system carrying water through a 130-mile-long canal system irrigating more than 100,000 acres of farmland. The collapse means thirsty corn, beans and other crops are without irrigation during the hottest, driest part of the summer, and repairs could stretch for weeks. Preston Stricker farms near Gering, Neb., and says not having irrigation water is a big deal.

PRESTON STRICKER: With no rain and the heat the way it generally is at the end of July, the first part of August, corn's in its pollinating stage within the next week to 10 days and a very, very critical time, so the yield drag could be tremendous.

KNAPP: Not having that water for weeks could cut Stricker's corn harvest in half, and it's not clear whether his crop insurance will kick in. At a meeting last week in Scottsbluff, Neb., Vanessa Reishus of Farm Credit Services said failure of an irrigation system is a covered loss, but there could be a catch.

VANESSA REISHUS: The unfortunate issue that kind of goes with that is that you have to prove that the loss was caused by a natural occurrence.

KNAPP: That means if heavy spring rains caused the tunnel to collapse, losses could be covered. But if the tunnel, built in 1917, collapsed of old age, the farmers probably wouldn't be eligible for coverage. Then there's the question of who will pay the millions of dollars needed to repair the tunnel and canal. Ken Meyer heads the Scotts Bluff, Neb., county board and says that's way more than farmers can afford.

KEN MEYER: To put that on the backs of our area producers, who are hurting now - we can't do that, guys.

KNAPP: Jay Dallman is with the Federal Bureau of Reclamation, which built the tunnel more than 100 years ago. Dallman says it's local irrigation districts that are responsible for operating and maintaining the system.

JAY DALLMAN: Bureau of Reclamation continues to own the facility, but the responsibility for O&M lies with the district. So the districts will be seeking funding.

KNAPP: Steve Pitts, who grows corn, beans, sugar beets and alfalfa near Lyman, Neb., says the burden of replacing aging infrastructure should be shared.

STEVE PITTS: It's just like the levees on the Mississippi. You've got to have some sort of help. The nation has to help some of this stuff as a whole. It can't be on the backs of just a few people because that provides things for everybody - not just me making a living or the banker in town here. It's widespread.

KNAPP: As efforts to sort out these issues continue, farmers here are hoping the repairs will be done in time to carry the water to save this year's crops.

For NPR News, I'm Fred Knapp in Lincoln, Neb.


Fred Knapp