TORRINGTON – “It’s gone.”
That was Dick Esquibel’s first thought when he returned to his childhood home two weeks ago.
He’d gotten a call earlier that morning. He keeps a home in Douglas to spend time with his grandchildren, and that’s where he was on July 17. When he got up that morning to water his small garden, he had no idea what happened to the Fort Laramie-Gering Irrigation Canal.
Around 3 a.m. that morning, a tunnel along the canal collapsed. The canal was running at or near full capacity, this being the most important time of the year when it comes to growing corn.
The collapsed caused thousands of pounds of dirt to pour into the canal. It plugged that canal, and caused the water to back up. Just six minutes later, according to Goshen Irrigation District Manager Rob Posten, water breached the banks of the canal upstream.
The water, intended for irrigating more than 100,000 acres of cropland, moved with such force that it annihilated the canal bank and a hill. It moved so ferociously that it took everything in its path and carved a trench as wide as a football field from the canal to the North Platte River. The incident prompted both the State of Wyoming and State of Nebraska to declare states of emergency due to the loss of irrigation water, and Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon personally visited the site on June 19.
When Esquibel got the call, he didn’t know any of that. He assumed the canal had run high and a concrete spillway east of his property had to go into use.
That’s why he didn’t rush to Fort Laramie.
Esquibel’s family has owned the plot since 1952. He grew up there, and he bought the plot from his father. His grandchildren visit every year, and it is a family treasure. There was a pond, and a garden he could flood irrigate thanks to some head gates he had built. He had a small orchard with plum and apple trees, too. There was an A-frame cabin that he built himself, and on the wall of the cabin there was a trophy-sized bull elk mount.
He had bagged the elk there, too.
The sign on the porch dubbed the spread the “Ponderosa.”
Then came July 17.
“I came out here and I saw it was all gone,” Esquibel said.
“Hey, that’s my place”
Last week, the Goshen Irrigation District and the Gering-Fort Laramie District both held informational meetings to discuss the collapse. Hundreds of people showed up to each meeting.
Many of them were farmers, who are suddenly without irrigation. At the GFLD meeting in Scottsbluff, they heard that their beans and corn are more or less doomed without water by Aug. 5. At the GID meeting, they heard why an initial attempt to fix the tunnel had failed, and how a temporary fix was underway with a cost of $2 million. They heard that their water rates were unquestionably going to rise, which would be an even bigger blow if this year’s crop fails in the dry summer heat.
At both meetings, numerous drone pictures of the devastation the breach caused were displayed on big screens. Those pictures have been shared on Facebook hundreds of times and every media outlet has shared them. They’ve garnered hundreds of comments sending prayers to all of those affected, and a lot of emojis.
At one of the meetings, a presenter pointed at a green dot in the corner of one of the pictures and identified it as a cabin, and stated that the cabin owner was lucky he wasn’t there that night.
But Esquibel doesn’t feel very lucky.
“I felt like standing up and saying ‘Hey that’s my place,’” Esquibel said. “They said the person that owns the cabin is lucky they weren’t there that night. I should’ve stood up and said ‘Hey, that is my place that got wiped out.’”
The drone pictures don’t do the destruction justice.
Even a few hundred yards away from the cabin, Esquibel can point out rubble in the distance and identify it as part of the Ponderosa.
“See that hunt-mobile?” he says, pointing at a brown and white, splintered hunting blind in the distance. “I spent quite a lot of time working on that. That had a trailer and it’s ruined.”
The trailer itself is completely gone. The hunting blind had seen heavy use from the Esquibels, and Dick’s grandchildren frequently played in it.
Closer to the house, he points out a camper that ultimately survived the breach, but had been drug along the ground, carving a six-inch ditch out of his front yard.
And it sits beside what Esquibel calls the ‘Grand Canyon.’
It used to be flat ground. Now, there’s a 15-foot bank on either side of a muddy void that runs for several hundred feet. There are large cottonwood trees reduced to kindling throughout the space.
It’s ground zero for the breach.
There was once a bank, a large hill and a road between Esquibel’s property and the canal. Now, the bottom of the canal is on an even plane with the ground his grandchildren used to play on. It used to be quiet.
Now, it’s the home to the constant rumble of heavy machinery. Road graders, bulldozers, earth movers, tractors, water trucks – there’s an endless parade outside of Esquibel’s cabin as crews work around the clock to re-build the canal. It’s a major construction site in the middle of nowhere.
And the pieces of the Ponderosa are there, too.
Esquibel once had a covered concrete patio with a large picnic table and a grill. Now it’s just a concrete pad. The roof is somewhere in the void. The picnic table – or part of it, at least – is wrapped around one of the few remaining trees, tangled in its now-exposed root system. Just like before, it’s next to the barbecue grill – but neither the picnic table or grill will be part of a family cookout ever again.
“It’s really hard because I was raised up here,” Esquibel said. “I have brought my grandchildren here through the years. It’s tough for me. It is just gone. This was a beautiful hill.
“There’s a tie over there to keep the pond water from running over,” he said, looking out into the void that used to be the Ponderosa. “That’s where the pond used to be. It’s totally gone. It wiped out the garden, too. There used to be a garden over there and I could flood irrigate and everything. No more. I’ll never be able to do that again.”
“It’s mind blowing”
It is a small miracle the cabin is still there.
Esquibel said it almost wasn’t.
“The force of the water was unreal,” he said. “My deck, that heavy cement that you put the four-by-fours on, it washed them down the hill like it was nothing. I don’t know why it didn’t knock my house over. I must’ve had a good foundation.”
Esquibel figures that at some point, the water was at least covering the front porch of his cabin because the porch was covered with sand, and there’s a visible water mark a few inches high on his front door. The bank must have given way just in time and sucked that water out into the void.
Inside the cabin, there’s a wet rug and some bubbled laminate flooring. Other than that, it’s nearly untouched. It’s a blessing amidst the destruction.
The land, though, won’t ever be the same.
“Look at all the debris,” Esquibel said. “Hopefully they’re able to clean that up.
I just hope they can backfill so we can get a well built. The septic is gone.”
Esquibel is likely right when he says it won’t ever be the same. There is a barn on the property that can’t be reached due to the void, which is lined with thick, wet dirt that acts almost like quicksand.
“It’s mind blowing,” Esquibel said. “That bank, you used to be able to walk straight through there. Look at the void.
“Maybe they can replace some stuff, but you have to let that stuff dry for a year.”
As of this writing, no one has contacted Esquibel about the loss of his property. He said he understands the GID and the contractors on the site have to get the water moving to the 100,000 acres of farmland that were left dry by the collapse. The entire region’s economy rides on that water. He’s also grateful it happened in the middle of the night, during a time when the Ponderosa was unoccupied.
But still, the Ponderosa was home – and he hopes that someday it will be again.
“It was hard on me for a week,” he said. “It was really tough. I was raised up here. I used to bring the grandkids out in the spring and go play and we’d go on the hill.
“It got me pretty good, huh?”