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Update on SAK Gering Fort-Laramie Project

Update on SAK Gering Fort-Laramie Project

A year ago, SAK was called upon to help with the catastrophic situation in the Gering Fort-Laramie Irrigation District along the border of Nebraska and Wyoming. One of the tunnels connecting the irrigation canals had collapsed, cutting off the water supply for growers and suffocating nearly 100,000 acres of farmland for the rest of the season. Today, the Irrigation District has recovered and is ready to go full force this spring. Check out the update here in this article by the Star-Herald.

Gering-Fort Laramie Irrigation District addressing issues, readying canal for spring water release
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Irrigation systems were running in the Gering Valley as water returned to the Gering-Fort Laramie Canal. Water was being moved at about 70% of normal in a controlled release.

MARK McCARTHY/Star Herald

In the wake of a tunnel collapse that effectively wiped out the 2019 irrigation season for growers in the Gering-Fort Laramie Irrigation District, officials are saying that the system is ready to go for 2020, and funding for repairs is coming along well.

According to GFL District Manager Rick Preston and irrigation district attorney Adam Hoesing, water is set to begin to be released May 1 with a target date for distribution by May 10. The water will flow through May and be shut off for 14-20 days, as is the norm, before coming back on and running until September.

In July 2019, the second of three tunnels along the Goshen/Gering Fort Laramie canal collapsed, causing a breach that forced all water to be shut off in the two irrigation districts, leaving more than 100,000 acres dry for nearly all of the rest of the growing season.

Tunnel 2 is southeast of Fort Laramie, Wyoming. The first tunnel is further upstream to the northwest with the third being in Nebraska, southwest of Gering. Since the Tunnel 2 collapse, work has been done in all three tunnels. Tunnel 1 (a 2,700-foot tunnel) and Tunnel 2 (2,200 feet long) have been temporarily repaired with ribbing and void grouting.

There will be further permanent permeation grouting repairs made to both of those tunnels after the 2020 irrigation season to satisfy demands from the Bureau of Reclamation. Rough engineering estimates indicate that costs will run about $4 million to finish Tunnel 1 and $3.5 million for Tunnel 2. Tunnel 3 has undergone ribbing placement 500 feet in on each end and grouting work throughout. Those repairs have satisfied the requirements and are considered to be final.

A $4 million grant was used in 2019 in order to get water going for the final week or so of the season. Temporary repairs on Tunnel 2 utilized primarily that $4 million and an additional $1.6 million, and temporary repairs on Tunnel 1 came in at around $1.9 million. The State of Nebraska has set up a grant not to exceed $3.8 million for funding above the initial $4 million, meaning that irrigation district patrons have no financial liability for the repairs to this point.

The work on Tunnel 3 carries a price tag of $3.5 million, which will be funded through a $2.3 million loan from the Bureau of Reclamation and a $1.25 million loan from Platte Valley Bank. Between those loans and grants already awarded, the districts are left with approximately $7.5 million in costs – the permanent fixes for Tunnel 1 and 2 – that have not been accounted for as yet. Those costs are split between the two irrigation districts with GFL assuming a 51% responsibility.

SAK Construction is overseeing the work being done along the canal, and Western States Bank provided the GFL District with a letter of credit in the amount of $1.15 million to give SAK financial assurances to begin their work. SAK was brought in in July to make emergency repairs to get the canal open after the initial collapse.
“We felt it was in the best interests of the district to go ahead and use SAK because they were already mobilized,” Preston said. “They have the experience, and so far they’ve done a wonderful job with all that they’ve done.”
Over the next 30 days, the district hopes to have back all information it needs to begin the bid process for final repairs in Tunnels 1 and 2, the desire being to get the bids back, get a contractor in place and have work begin as soon as water is out of the canal. In the meantime, the district will continue to look for grants to help with funding to keep the expense away from the patrons. Those grant funds, however, come with restrictions at times that force recipients to wait until the grant is awarded to get started on the work.

“We may be eligible for some of those grant monies, but you have to be approved before you can get them, which means you have to wait on the work, so the frustrating thing for us is we can’t wait on the work,” Preston said. “It has to be done, and a lot of these grants go away because of that. I wish there was a way that would exempt some of that on some of these due to the fact that we’re in an emergency situation.”

Preston said he is hopeful of eliminating as much out-of-pocket cost as possible for the district patrons, but even at $5 to $7 per acre, that would be a healthy hit out of operating capital or profit for a grower with, say, 1,000 acres.

“The point I’m making is this,” he said, “with today’s economy prices — $3 corn, $18 beans, no payments on your sugar beets, no production of hay last year because the water was out — $1 is enough, but if they were making $5 or $6 a bushel on corn, if they were making $24 or $28 a bushel on beans, if they were getting all of their sugar payments to them, then they could stomach that additional cost because economically they’ve got the money to do it. But at $3 corn and $18 beans and no sugar payments, they can’t live like that forever. They can’t do it. They can’t continue to operate like that.”

Preston and Hoesing expressed deep thanks for Platte Valley and Western States Bank, for all of the area’s Federal and State Representatives for bringing information to the forefront to obtain grant and loan funds, and for the many businesses and organizations that helped raise funds or reduced supply costs for the relief efforts for growers.

“I commend the public for stepping up,” Preston said. “People I don’t know making monetary pledges, bringing meals out, supplying water to personnel. I thank every irrigation district that offered personnel, machinery, they have been real supportive. You couldn’t ask for a better working relationship than the irrigation districts have with each other. We rub each other a little raw sometimes, but at the same time, we don’t want to see anybody do without at all.”

With the struggles the collapse of 2019 created, Preston said he knows growers will continue to fight as the work continues.

“I’ve always said a farmer is a gambler,” Preston said. “He gambles his livelihood every year on growing a crop. He gambles his children’s college education. He gambles his family farm. He gambles his retirement. He gambles it all every year when he puts that crop in the ground. And most of your landowners are pretty frugal operators. The ones that have been operating a long time, they keep a tight wallet. No excess spending outside of what’s absolutely necessary. And even they are having a tough time looking to the future with continued losses.”

Update on SAK Gering Fort-Laramie Irrigation District Project

Thursday, April 23, 2020

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