Water Fight: Gillette Says Law To Supply Water Problematic

Color photography of a rusty water what run from a faucet brown water

(Gillette, Wyo.) In the last day of the last legislative session, Sen. Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) inserted an amendment into the 2018 Omnibus Water Bill, which would require the city of Gillette to provide 200 million gallons of water per year to residents in Crook County.

The amendment is tied to a $4 million appropriation that was to allow the city to proceed with the next phase of the Madison Water Supply Project.

The city has a number of objections to the amendment. As a result, it has decided to return $4 million in grant funding to the state over possible consequences of complying with the amendment, including having to pay back $140 million in state funding it received to fund the project.

Kevin Frederick, with the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, spoke to about 40 residents in Moorcroft over the problems with private wells.

Acid wells

Last October, the residents in the Carlile area noticed their wells were running dry and becoming foul with an acidic taste and smell.

Prior to the problems showing up, the city had completed acid stimulation techniques at the Madison Well Field, which uses hydrochloric acid to increase water flows through the formations.

The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality got involved and tested over 50 private wells in the area. They ultimately determined the water contained sulfuric acid, which meant the problems couldn’t have resulted from the city’s acid stimulation on the Madison wells.

Driskill still believes the city is responsible. The sulfuric acid most likely comes from reaction with water and naturally occurring pyrites in the rock formations. Driskill argues the city is responsible, since it poured 100 acre-feet of water on the ground as part of the well development.

“I have no doubt in my mind,” Driskill said.

Gillette City Administrator Pat Davidson said there’s no way anyone could know that for sure.

“That issue is still being looked at by the DEQ. I think it’s entirely speculative at this point to say” the water dumping caused it, Davidson explained.

He notes that precipitation—snow and rain—regularly percolates down through the layers of rock. There’s also no baseline samples showing the quality of the water prior to the city’s activities on the well field. There’s no way to know if the acidification was caused by decline in the water coming from the wells.

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Driskill notes, however, they’ve had wells on the ranches in that area since the homesteading days without any problems like this.

In the meantime, Driskill said about 200 residents with private wells are impacted by the problems in the area. Driskill wants to help them.

“I’m very distraught about it,” Driskill said.

Growing community

The “Driskill Amendment,” as it’s become known, requires the city to allow for agricultural and residential water use within one-half mile of the Gillette-Madison pipeline. It gives the city 180 days to connect residents who apply for taps to connect the households, and requires the city to bill them at the “lowest rate charged by the regional water system regardless of use or location.”

Driskill said he had developed the amendment with input from the city but doesn’t feel they were willing to compromise on anything.

“The only give has been from my end,”–Sen. Ogden Driskill

“The only give has been from my end,” the senator said.

Davidson denies the city was consulted on the amendment and says it cannot comply with it without serious consequences.

He said the Madison Water Supply project was developed to supply Gillette with its water needs well into the future as populations increase.

In designing the project, it was feasible and efficient to provide subdivisions around Gillette with access to the system, and that was within the original purpose of the overall project. It was not designed, nor is it feasible, to supply water to residents 40 miles from the city center.

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“This was water for a growing community,” Davidson explained.

Contrary to what is often believed, Davidson said it’s not true the city offered to connect the residents in the Carlile area but they refused to sign onto the project. What actually happened, he said, is the city did a survey of the costs and engineering challenges to doing so and found it really wasn’t feasible.

One-third of the project was paid for with a voter-approved specific-purpose excise tax, also known as a Cap Tax. Since Campbell County residents were paying for the infrastructure, it was meant to serve that population.

The city released a statement on the issue today, which stated that allowing Crook County residents to connect to the system, as required by the Driskill Amendment, would “subsidize Crook County residents by allowing them to avoid the Cap Tax.”

Driskill said the city is compensated in other ways. He said the Madison Well Field is $150 million in assets in Crook County for which the city pays no taxes. He estimates the tax revenue on that land, were it not exempt from property tax, would be in the tens of thousands or possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars.

He also said Crook County provides all sheriff, fire, and homeland security services to the site without any compensation for the costs.

“Crook County gets not one penny for it,” Driskill said.

“We have no extra water to give at this point,”–Gillette Mayor Louise Carter-King.

Davidson countered the claim by pointing out the Campbell County Fire Department often responds to calls in Crook County, including fighting wildfires last summer, as does the Sheriff’s Office, which has provided security at events.

There’s a lot of mutual aid exchanges with emergency services between Crook County and Campbell County, Davidson said.

Payback

Davidson said, besides issues with Cap Tax, the state funding that covered two-thirds of the project requires the city to use the project for only municipal and domestic water supply. The Driskill Amendment allows for agricultural and “miscellaneous” uses.

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If the city were to abide by the amendment, it comes into conflict with state law. Quite possibly, the state could find the city in default and require it to pay back that money, which would put the city of Gillette on the hook for $140 million.

As such, it was in the city’s interest, Davidson said, to not sign the grant agreement for the $4 million, which Driskill amended in the legislative session.

The system also wasn’t designed to supply another 200 million gallons of water per year. The city doesn’t have the water to give, even if it was legally feasible, Davidson said.

The complaints and concerns over potential impacts from the construction of the Madison Well Field on private wells around it has garnered extra attention and care from the DEQ. As a result, the city’s applications for permits, which it requires to complete the construction—including the pumps—have not been approved.

The project is not actually bringing water to anyone at this point, and it’s unclear when the city will be able begin operations.

“We have no extra water to give at this point,” said Gillette Mayor Louise Carter-King.

In January, the Gillette City Council wrote the senator to ask for his help in expediting the permitting process. The letter states he offered to help contact state agencies, but the city had received no follow-up at that point.

“Good neighbors try to help each other,”–Sen. Ogden Driskill

The city also said the rate the Driskill Amendment sets for Crook County residents would be less than what city residents would pay, and it violates state law that grants the city the authority to set those rates.

Neighborly

Driskill said the city also has an ethical obligation to the residents of Crook County.

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“Good neighbors try to help each other,” the senator said.

He also added he’s not interested in sowing a lot of animosity between himself and Campbell County, a large portion of which is in his district. But he does believe the city is not doing right by the 200-plus residents he says have been deprived of water as a result of a city project.

“It’s one thing when a private industry harms you. It’s another thing to be wronged by government and have no recourse,” Driskill said.

He’s hoping some civil solution can be found to resolve the issues.

The city is claiming the issues are not ethical. They’re legal and technical. No matter how much they wanted to help, they don’t believe they’re responsible for the problems with the private wells, and they can’t feasible provide 200 million gallons of water a year.

For now, the city is asking the legislature to review the Driskill Amendment and consider the city’s objections.

Originally from New Mexico, Killough began his career writing freelance for a weekly magazine in Albuquerque while completing his undergraduate degree. In addition to reporting on uranium mining in western New Mexico, he spent three years reporting in western North Dakota during the height of the oil boom. He can be reached at kevin@county17.com or 701-641-6603.