City of Gillette halts water project over concerns of potential Crook County use
By Sarah Pridgeon
The Gillette City Council has announced it will turn down a grant funding agreement with the state that would have enabled the city to continue work on its Gillette Regional Water Supply project. The hurdle that the city finds itself unable to cross, said the council in a statement, is an amendment placed on the 2018 Omnibus Water Bill by Senator Ogden Driskill.
Dubbed the “Driskill Amendment”, it would have required Gillette to allow up to 200 Crook County applicants to tap into the Madison water pipeline for domestic, livestock and miscellaneous water use and to receive up to 200 million gallons of water per year. These taps would then be billed, “at a rate equal to the local base residential rate charged by the regional water system regardless of use or location plus the local consumption rate”.
Speaking during the legislative session, Driskill explained that he penned the amendment to help landowners near Carlile whose wells had run dry or acidic. Driskill attempted to work with Gillette to hook the landowners onto the pipeline on at least a temporary basis, but said he had been stonewalled.
“We are in no way accusing or saying that they’ve caused anything but, should they have, who knows what this thing will end up at,” he said, referring to the possibility that work on the Madison pipeline could have caused the wells to run dry.
The City of Gillette, however, felt the sensible route would be to wait until the Department of Environmental Quality has officially determined the cause.
“Clearly, if we didn’t have a role in that, then there’s probably a different result than if the city somehow, some way would be accountable for these wells,” said City Administrator Patrick Davidson.
“Until we have a better understanding of that, it’s kind of speculative at best as to what the city could or could not do.”
The 2018 Omnibus Water Bill contained funds earmarked for the continued financing of the Gillette Regional Water Supply project, according to last week’s statement. The council feels that the Driskill Amendment changes how water from that project could be used and allocated and who would be financially responsible for the water produced.
“The Gillette Regional Water Supply Project is vital to the continued growth and prosperity of Gillette and Campbell County. It served not only the residents and businesses in Gillette but is also the current and future source of water for many subdivisions in rural Campbell County,” said the council’s statement. “Until the contradictions in the amendment to the Omnibus Water Bill are rectified, the project will be delayed.”
On behalf of the Gillette City Council, Davidson outlined specific issues with the amendment, beginning with the concern that it would require the city to supply water outside its service area and charge lower rates to customers in Crook County.
“Wyoming law is clear that municipalities have complete control over the water system, including rates,” he said, also noting that, “Wyoming law is equally unambiguous regarding the rate, fees and costs a municipality may charge for connection and infrastructure outside the corporate limits.”
Contrary to Wyoming law, Davidson argues, the provision requires the city to supply water outside its service area rather than allowing the city to determine if it is economically feasible to do so, and also prohibits the city from recovering the costs associated with maintaining and operating the system.
Davidson also argues that providing Crook County residents with water under the terms of the provision is not consistent with the requirements of Gillette’s Specific Purpose Excise Tax, which funds around a third of the project.
“Additionally, the provision authorizes more water uses, livestock and miscellaneous, than authorized for the residents of Campbell County,” says Davidson’s statement.
Davidson believes that supplying Crook County residents would be inconsistent with the project’s joint powers agreement, which establishes a service area not including the Crook County residents. The provision would also dictate the rates and fees, contrary to the joint powers agreement.
Davidson also argues that serving Crook County residents was never contemplated when the project was designed – the city does not have the capacity to provide an additional 200 million gallons per year.
Finally, Davidson points out that the city is not authorized to supply the water described in the provision until the DEQ has completed its investigation. The Crook County landowners complained to the DEQ in 2017 that acid fracking at two Madison wells had caused diminished water quality in their own wells and, as a result, the Gillette Madison Wellfield Advisory Group was formed to study the issue.
A letter sent to the DEQ, Wyoming State Engineer’s Office, Wyoming Water Development Commission and Wyoming State Land and Investment Board from several Crook County individuals on November 9, 2017 requested that the project be shut down.
This request was granted and Gillette was denied authority to pump test the remaining wells in the project. According to Davidson, the city’s contractor terminated its contract and the city cannot utilize four of its wells until the investigation is complete.
“No timeline for completion of the investigation has been provided by DEQ. Until DEQ completes its investigation, the city does not have the authority or capacity to supply the water,” says the statement.
Driskill met with representatives from the City of Gillette on Monday, he says, in an effort to resolve the situation and hopefully find a way to bring water to those Crook County residents still affected by dry wells. The Gillette City Council is due to meet this week, says the senator, and he hopes they will discuss the issue and make a decision bearing Monday’s conversation in mind.
“It all started from a tiny little thing,” Driskill says. “I’ve spent hundreds and hundreds of hours trying to get this thing resolved.”