Crook County residents whose wells were recently disrupted — possibly by a Gillette water project — can tap into a reliable water source under a new law.
Lawmakers brought relief to the affected community of Carlile by amending a water construction bill that Gov. Matt Mead recently signed into law. Championed by Sen. Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower), the amendment allows Crook County residents to draw from the water system designed to supply Gillette.
An investigation by the Department of Environmental Quality partially completed early this year revealed 11 wells near Carlile have water with a pH level lower than the state standard of 6.5 for domestic water wells — marking them as acidic. Residents saw wells go dry and water turn acidic last summer as the City of Gillette drilled a series of its own deep wells nearby to expanded municipal supplies. Despite suspicions, investigations have not positively linked the Gillette project with the disruption near Carlile.
The new law serves “the vast majority of people having water problems now,” Driskill said. “Whether it’s [Gillette’s] fault or not, [the new legislation] helps take care of it.”
Conversations with a handful of affected well owners show “they’re happy,” Driskill said. “It’s not a total freebee — they still have to build infrastructure.” Water transmission lines could be several miles long.
Carlile’s story is one of a money-saving plan, a growing metropolis in a high-altitude desert, how government can and can’t respond to infrastructure emergencies, and the complexities of geology in a state where natural water supplies are out of balance with population growth.
A city reaches across county lines
Gillette realized long ago it could not supply its growing metropolis with adequate potable water and so in the 1980s developed a wellfield near Carlile in neighboring Crook County. The city, with millions of dollars in state aid, drilled ten wells deep into the Madison formation. A 42-mile pipeline connects the wells to the city.
But growth outstripped supply so in 2014 the city started drilling wells numbered 11-15 near the originals. As the wells were being developed, drillers employed a process known as acid fracking that pumps thousands of gallons of acid into the wells to stimulate water production. The technique is similar to the more commonly known “fracking” used to stimulate natural gas extraction.
Then, during development last summer several neighboring wells went dry or turned acidic.
Cattle changed their habits, walking a mile across area ranches for a drink, said Michael Cranston, whose water was affected. “They couldn’t figure out why the cattle weren’t using the water,” he said. Residential wells revealed the problem in area homes. “It would kind of like burn your skin when you showered in it,” Cranston said.
“It sure doesn’t taste very good,” Driskill said after he first took a sip.
The city’s wells are more than 1,000 feet deep while the neighboring residential wells are much shallower – on the order of one or two hundred feet. But there’s still a suspicion that the deeper wells had an adverse effect on the shallower ones.
The resulting tumult saw Cranston resort to hauling water for his cattle. He set up a water tank and distribution system that allowed him to keep his stock alive, but he had to truck the water in daily.
Last fall the DEQ began a probe, testing 32 domestic wells, 12 stock wells and a spring, agency spokesman Keith Guille said.
“We’re investigating potential causes,” he said. DEQ learned of the pollution in August, met with area residents in October and, in a couple of weeks, began sampling.
“The science can, at times, not be as fast as some would like,” Guille said. “It definitely does take some time.”
Some couldn’t wait
Cranston couldn’t wait to be rescued by the government this winter as snows drifted around his makeshift above-ground holding tank near Carlile and temperatures dropped. He and members of his family had drilled two unsuccessful wells after their original one went dry. On their third try, they went to a corner of their property and were successful, he said.
“It cost us over $90,000,” he told WyoFile, “not including time, engineering, location … permits.” The lawmakers’ recent lifeline from Cheyenne was “too little too late, as far as we’re concerned,” he said. “Why would we want to hook onto their system?”
Before the problems emerged, only a few area residents had tapped into the Gillette system, Driskill said.
“We had tried to kinda be a part of that pipeline,” he said. Gillette “kinda priced them out,” he said of Carlile users. The city charged “a real high rate for people who are not part of the project.”
Under the new law up to 200 Crook County residents could tap in. Those seeking new taps would likely form a group to share expenses and build and extend infrastructure to their properties.
“It’s probably going to be fairly pricey.” Driskill said. “This is still not bargain-basement cheap water.”
Driskill’s amendment stipulates that rates for those connecting cannot exceed those charged in Gillette’s municipal system. New connections should not significantly affect the city or its finances, he said.
“We made our base rate the same base residential rate in town [Gillette],” he said. That ensures the city cannot “vindictively charge” Carlile residents exorbitant prices for water or taps.
“I don’t think it’s hurtful to Gillette at all,” Driskill said. “It really doesn’t serve a huge group of people.” New customer usage from residents of Carlile would be “on par with [one] industrial customer in Gillette.”
A key element of the new law is the authorization to use water for livestock. That was something strictly prohibited from the beginning of Gillette’s municipal project.
“There was no legal livestock use,” Driskill said. That was the biggest change, he said, but applies only to Crook County.
The 1-million-gallon annual limit per user should ensure water is not used for irrigation, other than lawn watering.
“It’s absolutely not irrigation,” Driskill said of the new supply.
Driskill said he briefed the delegation from Campbell County about his amendment and shared it with them. “They had full chance to visit with the city,” he said, and the amendment pointed no fingers. “There is not an accusation of Gillette causing problems.”
Providing water to Carlile residents helps resolve another issue that’s been bugging Driskill, he said. Neighboring Campbell County now has millions of dollars in infrastructure in Crook County that Crook County must safeguard.
“We provide all the fire protection, the homeland security,” he said. Industrial development traffic impacts county roads. Yet Wyoming’s Constitution doesn’t provide a method for recouping such costs from a neighboring government, he said.
“There is no [payment in lieu of taxes,] no tax base,” he said. “You are forced to [provide services] for another county. My approach is Crook County should have something back for that.”
Meanwhile, back at the wellfield above the ranch…
DEQ has an executive committee and three working groups investigating the pollution at Carlile. An independent consultant is reviewing the five new Gillette wells, Guille said, which still have not come on line.
One advisory group is focusing on integrity among the new Gillette-Madison borings. Ideally, a well is constructed so that when it penetrates different formations it does not connect that which is not connected naturally.
In drilling water, oil and gas wells, the bore hole is typically lined with a steel casing or pipe. The void between that pipe and the bore hole is filled with cement or some other material that blocks fluids in one formation from flowing to another.
This construction is documented in well logs, which are now under review. Well integrity, cementing and casing, “that was one of the concerns that was raised,” Guille said.
DEQ urges those who drill private domestic wells to conduct a baseline test. “It’s important people know what’s in their well and they get it regularly tested,” he said. “It’s nice to know for your own health.”
Then, should development occur nearby and some disruption occur, “they at least have a place to start,” for an investigation, Guille said.