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Serving: West
construction at Goshen/Gering Fort Laramie irrigation canal Courtesy of North Platte Natural Resources District
CANAL REPAIR: Water may be flowing again in the Goshen/Gering-Fort Laramie Irrigation Canal, but the loss of irrigation water to farms supplied by the tunnel amounted to more than $89 million. The heavy equipment shown here was on-site for the repair in August.

Wrecked canal sign of bigger issue?

Another Voice: Congress has taken its eye off the ball when it comes to infrastructure.

For farmers in Wyoming and Nebraska, where average rainfall is less than 20 inches per year and precipitation is measured in hundredths of an inch, July 2019 will not soon be forgotten. That was the month that the Goshen/Gering-Fort Laramie irrigation tunnel collapsed, shutting off water to dozens of farms and busting crops for the 2019 season.

Water is flowing again through the tunnel, but for the farmers on the 107,000 acres of land affected, the trouble isn’t over. The good news is that USDA is stepping in with crop insurance help. The bad news is that on a grander scale, this disaster is just another sign of aging infrastructure.

And this problem is no laughing matter. The roads, bridges, irrigation tunnels and other public infrastructure in this country are getting old. Many are post-World War II structures constructed during a gold rush of investment made by a government convinced that to be a world power, we had to be able to move material from point A to point B very efficiently.

Perhaps that message is lost on today’s leaders. The American Society of Civil Engineers issues a report every four years on the state of the nation’s infrastructure, the latest being in 2017. In that last report, the U.S. got a D+ — and in the 2013 report, the grade was the same.

Now parents reading this know that if your child keeps coming home with the same grades, you intervene. Perhaps Congress has forgotten.

Bipartisan issue like no other

I don’t know of another issue that should be more supported by Republican and Democrat alike. Infrastructure is critical to so many industries, creates more jobs than a high-tech startup and can help level the playing field in global trade.

We do have the most efficient logistics in the world, with roads and bridges that have few rivals. But they’re crumbling.

There has been investment in some shovel-ready projects, but the irrigation tunnel collapse shows that a lot more is needed. While the cause of that collapse may have been too much rain (who hasn’t seen that in 2019?), the truth is that the tunnel is old and was probably in need of repairs before the disaster.

I realize national lawmakers appear to be preoccupied with other issues. But this issue should be top of mind. Instead of billion-dollar tax cuts that have a short-term impact and push the national debt up, how about taking on an investment mindset and take the next trillion in debt in a new direction?

In business, to succeed, you keep enhancing your foundation. Farmers buy new machines because they can boost efficiency. Companies buy new computers because it makes workers more productive. The government owns the roads on which all those goods travel, and an investment there has far-reaching benefits.

If business can be more efficient, it can invest, add workers and keep growing. If infrastructure hampers business … well, it’s obvious what happens next.

Languishing ideas

In the Midwest, for years, there’s been talk of fixing the river system to enhance movement of goods down the Mississippi (and improving connections with key tributaries). This is an effort that has farmers, carpenters, contractors and others all on the same side of an issue. Yet Congress, and the last four administrations, have made few moves on improvements.

While we fiddle in Washington, our infrastructure burns. Meanwhile, our global competitors in Brazil and China are making critical investments in improved infrastructure. Sure, the roads in Brazil still need help, but the Amazon River is becoming a pipeline of goods from farm to market.

China is investing in South Africa, building a trade infrastructure to go along with what that country is building at home. And sure, pollution in China is a disaster, but the country is also pushing for zero-emission cars — and making headway.

From where I sit, the logical answer is pass laws to boost U.S. infrastructure. And while logic and Congress don’t always go in the same sentence, it’s one way everyone can work together to make America great again. Really.

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