Dispute With Gillette over Madison Access Continues

water. splash. water splash. Splashed water. Drops and liquid water splash. splashing water

(Gillette, Wyo.) The back and forth between Crook County and the city of Gillette over access to water continued this week without resolution between the two parties.

After the city began discharging water from its Madison Well Field, residents in the Carlile area experienced wells running dry and their water becoming acidic. The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality is looking into the issues, but no tests have concluded precisely what caused the problems in private wells.

In the last legislative session, Sen. Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) passed an amendment as part of the omnibus water bill. The amendment, which has become known as the Driskill Amendment, granted Carlile residents access to 200 taps, each drawing up to 1 million gallons of water per year, among other provisions.

Pound sand

The amendment is tied to funding for the city of Gillette to pursue a design and construction phase of the Madison Regional Water System, which would have brought subdivisions east of Gillette into the system.

The city had a number of objections to the amendment, including concerns that the agricultural use it permits would potentially put the city on the hook to pay back $140 million in funding to the state, which was appropriated to provide infrastructure to support future residential water needs.

“The answer is the same as always–go pound sand,” Sen. Ogden Driskill

The Driskill Amendment also granted access to Crook County residents to the Madison Regional Water System, which derived a third of its funding from optional sales taxes Campbell County paid to the state. None of the funding came from Crook County.

In order to absolve itself of adhering to the provision in the amendment, the city refused the design and construction funding.

Driskill responded to the city’s decision by offering a counter proposal that limits some of the agricultural use and proposes a limited-time, special-use tax so Crook County would pay something into the infrastructure they use. The city refused the offer.

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“The answer is the same as always—go pound sand,” Driskill said.

The city argues the concessions are based entirely on the senator’s word. No matter how sincere his efforts at compromise, he doesn’t have the legal authority to grant the concessions he is offering.

A change to the Driskill Amendment would need to go through the legislative process in the next session in 2019, and a special-use tax would need to be approved through the Crook County Commission.

Also, even if the Crook County Commission passed the tax, the proposal is based on a period of time and not an amount of revenue, meaning it wouldn’t necessarily result in Crook County residents paying a fair share into the system.

As far as the city is concerned, the only legally binding agreement tied to the design and construction funding is the Driskill Amendment.

“The amendment is all that’s on the table right now,” said Gillette Mayor Louise Carter-King.

Neighborly

Driskill and residents of the area, however, are saying the city is not acting according to Wyoming’s traditional neighbor-helping-neighbor spirit.

“Here in ag country, if your neighbor needs help, you help them,” over a dozen Carlile landowners and their family members said in a letter submitted to County 17.

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The letter goes on to say the residents contacted the city, not to lay blame for their well problems, but to get access to a pipeline that runs through their properties. After the city refused to help them, the letter explained, they turned to Driskill and Rep. Tyler Lindholm (R-Sundance).

“This is a regional water system and a boon for the city of Gillette,” Lindholm said.

“It’s the law when we agree to accept the funding,” Gillette City Administrator Pat Davidson

Lindholm questions the concerns over agricultural use. He said some Gillette residents have chicken coops in their yards, which is an agricultural use.

Carter-King said city ordinances actually prohibit the coops. The city just doesn’t often have the resources to locate offenders and enforce the law, and there’s a difference between an industrial ag application and a residential hobby.

Lindholm also questions if the city would really be on the hook to pay back the $140 million if the water went to agricultural uses. The legislature voted for the amendment, the state attorney general reviewed it, and the governor signed it. This means they are permitting explicitly the provisions of the amendment.

City Administrator Pat Davidson disagrees. He said the attorney general’s duties would not extend to considering potential consequences to the city of Gillette if it were to accept the funding and the provisions of the amendment.

The letter by Carlile residents also criticizes the city for not following a law passed by the governor.

Davidson said, by refusing the funding, the city is not beholden to the amendment.

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“It is the law when we agree to accept the funding,” Davidson said.

Dialogue

The mayor and Davidson also pointed out, as far as being neighborly goes, the amendment is effectively depriving funding needed for the next buildout phase of the regional water system.

The subdivisions of American Road, Freedom Hills, Meadow Springs, Foxridge, Rozet Ranchettes, and Buckskin will have to wait for access to the system.

“I’m thankful there’s been rain,” the mayor said.

“I don’t want to go to war with the city of Gillette,” Rep. Tyler Lindholm

The residents of Carlile argue in their letter the fact the amendment passed with wide margins in the legislature shows widespread support for something to be done to help them with their plight.

“We remain less than whole and with a bad taste in our mouths for the city of Gillette and their refusal to be good neighbors and honest stewards of the state of Wyoming’s resources,” the letter stated.

Driskill said the city has stonewalled any attempts to discuss the matter.

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“They don’t talk to me. They just go to the newspapers,” he said.

Davidson insists there’s been an ongoing dialogue with Driskill on the issue, but so far there’s no satisfactory resolution. Lindholm is still hoping to find that resolution.

“I don’t want to go to war with the city of Gillette,” he said.

However, as the dialogue continues, the parties involved are looking more and more to the state for a solution.

“The state has a responsibility to find out what happened and rectify the situation,” Lindholm said.

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.