Michael Cranston’s family has ranched in Carlile since 1904.
The rolling pine- and spruce-dotted Black Hills make Carlile — a quiet crossroads community between Moorcroft and Devil’s Tower — far more hospitable than the hardscrabble sagebrush plains stretching west toward Wyoming’s coal capital, Gillette. Also attractive to Cranston and his ancestors was a seemingly bountiful underground asset – potable groundwater.
They weren’t the only ones to notice.
In the early 1980s, the city of Gillette, which then numbered only 12,134 residents, came calling. Officials knew they couldn’t support a coming coal boom with the meager aquifer underlying that fledgling metropolis.
So Gillette reached east to the Madison limestone formation underlying Carlile. It spent $23 million to tap into the aquifer with a pipeline some 42 miles long, according to reporting by the Gillette News Record. The project, now known as the existing Madison well field, would enable up to 35,000 Gillette residents to take carefree showers like those enjoyed by the Cranston clan.
But Gillette’s regional population kept booming. More than 37,000 people live there today — and water supplies “are dwindling,” city officials say.
To meet rising demand the state approved a $41 million down payment between the 2009 and 2010 legislative sessions. The Gillette Regional Water Supply Project, aka the Gillette-Madison project was born. This time the plan was to sink enough holes in neighboring Crook County to supply water to 57,000 city residents — the projected need through 2040.
It seemed like a good idea, until one day this July at the Cranston place when silt came out of his sister-in law’s previously clean shower.
For 16 years it had been “the best well on the ranch,” Cranston said. “The maximum we would pump was 15 gallons a minute. It never went dry.
“The next morning [July 14] there was no water — zero,” Cranston told WyoFile. So began four months of unsuccessful drilling for a new Cranston well, erection of a temporary tank, laborious daily hauling of water, and other disruptions, Cranston said. The new Cranston well produces foul-tasting acidic water.
Only one variable can account for the unnatural shift, Cranston said — the problem-plagued drilling of the most recent Gillette wells. They sit just up the hill from the Cranston houses.
Today residents are seeking relief from Gillette, the state, Wyoming’s Water Development Commission, and anybody else who might throw them a lifeline.
The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality is investigating, politicians are weighing in and the people of Carlile are asking whether the big city to the west will stand up to its water-project slogan: “We are all in this together.”
Why is acid pumped into water wells?
Sen. Ogden Driskill, who represents Carlile, other parts of Crook and portions of neighboring Campbell counties, visited his constituents to see what was up with their dry and potentially polluted wells.
“I drank from them myself,” he said. “It sure doesn’t taste very good.”
A member of the Legislature’s Select Water Committee, Driskill supports the Gillette-Madison regional water project. It would serve 45 water districts efficiently, and is an example of “what ought to happen in Wyoming,” he said. “This allows a place to grow and be healthy.”
The wells, pump stations, blending facilities and 36-inch pipeline are the largest public works project in the state, Driskill said. Gillette and the Wyoming Water Development Office say the project costs $217.6 million and is funded by $145.8 million in state grants, about $44.3 million in loans and $27.4 million in Campbell County capital facility tax funds.
But, “cost overruns are pretty big problems,” Driskill said.
Those problems appeared as early as 2012, with the first well of the new expansion, according to the Gillette News Record. A hole collapsed, irrevocably trapping a drill bit.
Drillers had been working atop Pine Ridge above the Cranston ranch, according to the News-Record. The original Madison project was drilled into the floor of the neighboring valley, but planners chose the higher site for the new phase to reduce the number of pumping stations and save almost $10 million. As a consequence, drillers were probing through several hundred feet for which they didn’t have the geologic information acquired for the original well field. In a sense, they were drilling blind.
“There’s a history of problems at the well field,” Driskill said. None of the five wells, are yet online, he said. “Then we had [neighbors’] wells show up that had acid.”
Much like oil or gas wells, water wells can be, and often are, “fracked” to stimulate or increase production. The technique is quite common in Madison formation water wells, according to Driskill, others, and documents in the state water resource library. “Acid fracking — it’s actually a great thing in the Madison,” Driskill said. “Acid fracking is not unsafe. It’s used on every one of the Madison wells.”
The process involves pumping water, sometimes acid or other fluids, and sand into wells at high pressure to increase the porosity in reservoir formations.
Once employed, “all of that material [is removed, measured and] taken off-site and disposed of suitably,” Wyoming Water Development Office Director Harry LaBonde said.
At least four of the five new Gillette wells have been enhanced with acid fracking, Driskill said, figures LaBonde generally supported. “Certainly one of those wells have not been fracked at this point,” the director said.
The senator said the problem more likely lies with the wells themselves, not what was used to stimulate them. “The problem we’ve got is not due to acid fracking,” Driskill said. “If there is a problem, it probably has to do with integrity of well bores or the formation — [fluid] finding its way into another formation.”
Enter the DEQ
Responding to residents’ complaints, the Wyoming DEQ held a community meeting in Moorcroft on Oct. 12. Approximately 40 persons attended, County 17 reported. DEQ spokesman Keith Guille told WyoFile approximately 11 wells in the area are being tested for contaminants.
“When impacts are done to groundwater that’s not natural, we have to go see the cause,” Guille said. “We’re trying to be proactive with these residents.”
A week after both Cranston’s well and his less-productive backup went dry, the family drilled another pair. All four family wells were about 100 to 200 feet deep, much shallower than the new Gillette-Madison wells. But the new water didn’t seem right. The family called a testing company and discovered a very low pH of 3.9 — on the acidic side of the logarithmic scale and well below normal potable levels that range from 6 to 8.5
“The guy said, ‘I’ve never seen this ever in my life — must be my instrument,’” Cranston said of the first pH reading. “It would kind of like burn your skin when you showered in it. One of the guys here said it smelled like copper.”
More tests followed, confirming the extremely low ph and showing other abnormal readings, including iron that was “off the charts. “DEQ — they didn’t say they lost acid,” Cranston said. “That’s what they’re testing for now. I think they used 30,000 gallons of hydrochloric acid per well.”
Cranston, a retired engineer who worked with the Natural Resource Conservation Service, believes the correlation between the Gillette-Madison drilling and domestic well disruption is more than coincidence. “One of my responsibilities was knowing geology and soils,” he said. The loss of water and low pH, “it’s not natural.”
“We don’t have any oil or gas activity,” Cranston said. “The only thing in this area that’s happened has been that project up there.” The new wells are about a mile from his house. “I can see the rig up on the top of the hill,” he said of the new drilling.
A Wyoming responsibility
“This is not a Gillette problem,” said Shannon Anderson of the Powder River Basin Resource Council, “not a county problem, it’s a state problem, a Wyoming problem.” Her group hosted a community meeting last week to listen to worries.
State officials are paying attention, water development director LaBonde said. “DEQ, the state engineer, Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and water development — we are all concerned about what the problems are,” he said. “The hydro-geologist under contract has reviewed cement-bond logs for all five wells and said they are adequate and safe. Everything to date has shown the wells were properly constructed.”
Nevertheless, problems with the Cranston’s wells have called into question the cement-bond logs. “There’s some discussion about needing to go back and check that,” he said. Also, “there are very precise records how much acid solution was pumped.”
Anderson’s resource council points to troubles during drilling. “There’s been a history of lost circulation in these wells,” she said, an indication of a leaky bore-hole and/or its lining. “There were some geologists that raised some concerns about the location of the wells because of some fractures and fissures in the formation.
“We heard [there were] 160,000 gallons of acid that were used in these wells,” she said. “It’s still a little unclear. We need to all have some accountability.”
LaBonde, whose office oversees the contracts for the drilling, said there are many reasons the Cranston wells could have failed. “At this point it’s unknown,” he said of the problem’s cause.
“If there was a problem detected and there was a potential solution, I would view that as project-eligible,” for relief funding, he said. “We want to make these safe wells. We want to make sure the cement seals are good … and the casing intact.”
Driskill also can’t say for certain what precipitated the Cranston problems. Whether they’re caused by the well field or not, “those are hard things to prove,” he said.
He wants water for his constituents, however. “They’re hauling water for domestic [use] and cattle,” he said. “I wanted a temporary water [supply] for them until we find out.”
But there’s been no relief, he said. “There’s an unwillingness on the part of the city of Gillette,” he said. “It’s a frustration I’ve got. I’m not-so-subtly trying to nudge them into doing the right thing. Part of it, I’m sure, is they feel [spending money on relief is] an admission of guilt.”
The city does want to help, Gillette Communications Manager Geno Palazzari said. “The request was made,” he told WyoFile. “The City of Gillette did not say no. We said we would do that. The question was the funding to facilitate that. That was still in question.”
As the DEQ continues its probe it has collected an email list to distribute updates and also plans to set up a website, Guille said.
Meantime, Cranston is hauling water for the four family households and about 100 cattle, every day. “There’s no place we can drill,” he said of his options on the ranch. The best remaining solution, he thinks, is to service Carlile from Gillette’s older Madison supply.
“All we need now, until we find out who’s at fault or what’s at fault,” he said, “is water.”