Driskill says Gillette must act to resolve water dispute

 

By Perrin Stein

Gillette News Record

Via Wyoming News Exchange

GILLETTE — Gillette sees the first step to resolving ongoing disagreements over its water project as the Legislature repealing an amendment that increases Crook County’s access to Madison pipeline water.

While the city waits, state Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, said it’s up to Gillette officials to act.

“The ball is in their court,” said Driskill, who sponsored the amendment. “I have proposed maybe 30 or 40 solutions, which we can put in place or at least talk about now, and they haven’t discussed a single one of them.”

During the 2018 legislative session, Driskill proposed the amendment under which the state would give Gillette about $4.5 million for continued work on the Gillette Regional Water Supply project, which includes the Madison pipeline. In return, the city would provide up to 200 Crook County residents with water for domestic and agricultural use.

Driskill, who represents parts of Campbell, Crook and Weston counties, drafted the amendment after landowners approached him with concerns that their wells had dried up possibly due to Madison pipeline construction and that the city was flushing and dumping water on the ground near their private wells.

The amendment also says the landowners could use up to 1 million gallons each a year at a rate of 95 cents per 1,000 gallons, while Gillette residents pay a rate of $3.95 for the same amount.

He said he hoped the amendment would get the city’s attention and lead to a solution.

Gillette residents approved and paid a sales tax for the $217.6 million project. The state picked up two-thirds of the project’s cost, and Gillette residents also approved and paid a sales tax to bring more water to the city.

Believing the amendment unfair to Gillette residents, the city declined the $4.5 million in state money to continue the Regional Water System project, stalling it indefinitely.

At a Tuesday evening public meeting with the Gillette City Council, Driskill and Crook County landowners voiced their concerns. Council members and the mayor listened, but didn’t speak except to ask clarifying questions.

Driskill said Tuesday’s meeting was just a way for the city to publicize its perspective and that because the City Council didn’t invite landowners to the meeting or acknowledge the times Driskill has discussed potential compromises with them, it shows the city isn’t genuinely interested in finding a solution.

“When I asked them at the end (of Tuesday’s meeting) what a solution could be, they were silent,” he said. “We need to discuss a compromise to move forward, so at this point no progress has been made.”

“We have to get rid of the amendment,” Councilman Robin Kuntz said Wednesday. “It just triggers too many issues for the city, and we have to look out for our citizens. After that, we can act on a compromise.”

Driskill said there’s nothing stopping the city from discussing the issue and working out a compromise he can take back to the Legislature in its next session.

“I’m not sure what to do at this point because the city is refusing to talk,” Driskill said. “It’s impossible to move forward on a compromise if the city is unwilling to negotiate and will only discuss repealing the amendment.”

The only way to repeal the amendment is through the Legislature, which meets in early 2019.

Before then, the city said it will continue to discuss the Regional Water Supply project with Campbell County legislators, with the Legislature’s Select Water Committee and the Campbell County districts that tie into the project’s regional extensions.

Through those discussions, it’s possible a replacement amendment or a compromise plan could be drafted, Kuntz said.

One possible compromise is for Crook County landowners to form a district and then apply for state funding through the Regional Extension project so they could hook up to the Madison pipeline.

Mayor Louise Carter-King said the city would be happy to advise Crook County on forming a district and could support a request to the state to bring an additional well online to increase the available water supply.

“I understand their frustration, but I didn’t hear them propose they would form a district or offer up other forms of compromise,” she said in response to concerns some Crook County landowners voiced at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.

Driskill recently proposed a compromise, walking back on some of the stipulations in his original amendment, including having Crook County residents pay the same water fees as Gillette residents and reducing the amount of water residents could use annually for agricultural and domestic use.

“We have to go by what the law is now, and the amendment is included in the current law,” Carter-King said. “I don’t see how legally we can make an agreement that contradicts the law. We have to wait until the law is changed to move forward.”

In response, Driskill said the city could work with legislators to develop a framework for moving forward on the Regional Water Supply project, enabling continued progress before the next legislative session.

“I don’t trust the city, so I do not support repealing the amendment without having some other solution in place,” he said.

Carter-King and Kuntz both said they understand that Crook County residents and Driskill are frustrated.

“The landowners may have valid complaints, but they need to understand that this is a long process,” Kuntz said. “Based on the (City Council) meeting, we will be following up their complaints and we will be reviewing the agreements we have with various landowners to make sure we are doing what we said we would.”

Kuntz emphasized that the Madison Pipeline project has been stalled since December not just because the city declined the $4.5 million of state money, but because the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality halted construction after complaints from landowners.

“Right now, we are waiting on the DEQ, so we have no water to give,” he said.

Going forward, Driskill said he plans to listen to the discussion at a Select Water Committee meeting in August and said he won’t attempt to make any more verbal deals with city officials and instead only will accept proposals in writing.

“Based on what’s happened so far, everything I propose will be unpalatable to them,” Driskill said. “I don’t believe I have anything they will accept.”

Because of the project’s delay, Gillette is running low on water and some of Campbell County’s rural subdivisions, which were scheduled to receive state money to continue the Regional Extension, are having water quality issues, including high fluoride levels.

“The county will assist the city and the state in whatever way we can to get this project started up again because we have so many districts that need water as soon as possible,” said Campbell County Commission Chairman Mark Christensen.

To assist these districts — which include Rozet Ranchettes, Freedom Hills and American Road — Christensen said the county may be able to use its district support grants to get water to residents. Because the county was expecting the state to pay, it didn’t budget for the expense. If it pays into the water project, the county would have less money available for other district support projects, like improving roads.

Christensen sees compromises between the city, the state and Crook County and revisions to the Omnibus Water Bill as the only way forward. Because the Madison pipeline project agreements don’t involve the county, it can only play a peripheral role and wait for the city and the Legislature to act, he said.

“I think it can be resolved, and I think it’s in everyone’s best interest to compromise because a lot of money has been invested in this,” he said. “People on both sides aren’t being flexible and haven’t stopped to think things through, but I think we can come together and find a solution — hopefully, sooner rather than later.”