Water compromise in sight

By Patrick Filbin
Gillette News Record, Via Wyoming News Exchange

Grace Moore photo

GILLETTE — A handful of landowners in Crook County will be able to use water from the city of Gillette’s Madison Pipeline project after an agreement was hashed out Friday.
A resolution was passed by the Wyoming Water Development Commission and supported by the Select Water Committee that will allow five to six landowners to use existing water taps to tie into the Gillette Regional Water Supply project.
The two state boards were meeting in Gillette and helped solve an ongoing dispute between the city of Gillette and the landowners, represented by state Sen. Odgen Driskill.
To use Madison water, the Crook County landowners will have to pay for the build-out of a pipeline to connect their taps to the Madison.
The solution comes after nearly a year of complaints, discussions and disputes between a handful of Crook County landowners and the city of Gillette before and after Driskill came up with an amendment to the 2018 Omnibus Water Bill, which was approved by the Legislature. That amendment prompted the city to refuse $4.2 million for the continuation of the Regional Extension Project.
However, even though a tentative solution is on the table, there are still some disagreements when it comes to what landowners in Crook County will get as a part of the deal.
What was agreed to
Harry LaBonde Jr., director of the Wyoming Water Development Office, clarified some key aspects of the dispute during the Select Water Committee and Water Development Commission joint meeting Friday morning.
A strong point of contention for the city about Driskill’s amendment was that if the city allowed Madison water to be used for livestock, it would have to send back or forfeit all of the state money that it has already spent on the $217 million project.
That is not the case.
LaBonde and State Engineer Rick Deuell said livestock water use is allowed under the city of Gillette’s water rights.
At Friday’s meeting, Deuell clarified that under “municipal use,” Gillette’s water rights allow a number of municipal uses of water that can include livestock, as long as the municipality agrees to it.
“There is not a water rights issue with regard to providing water to folks in Crook County,” LaBonde said.
LaBonde said he will write a letter to the city outlining that if it allows some Crook County residents to use water for livestock — at the same rate, quantity levels and all other rules that Gillette residents are subject to — Gillette does not need to pay the state back any of the money used to build the project.
That letter, along with a letter from the State Engineer’s Office clarifying the water rights issue, “should clear the way for the city to enter into water rights service agreements with those landowners along the pipeline in Crook County,” LaBonde said.
While all sides agreed Friday, nothing can happen immediately.
Gillette City Administrator Patrick Davidson said those Crook County residents can’t have access to Madison water until they agree that Gillette can discharge pump-tested water from wells 11 and 12.
“Assuming that the landowners allow the discharge of water from 11 and 12 on their property, the city will provide — on a temporary basis — water to those affected ranchers for purposes of domestic and livestock use,” Davidson said.
He added that a time period has not been discussed for how long those landowners will have access to Madison water.
After Friday’s meeting, Driskill seemed relieved that there finally is a resolution within reach.
“This is 100 percent, to the letter, what the initial request was a year ago,” he said, referring to an original plan he had proposed that would provide a certain number of emergency taps for landowners before his “punitive” 2018 amendment was passed.
“If we would have done this a year ago, there would have been no amendment (and would have) avoided this all,” he said.
Mayor Louise Carter-King said no water lines could be put in place until wells 11 and 12 are ready to pump.
She said she felt Friday’s meeting went OK for the city, but wondered why so many Select Water Committee members were talking about emergency water situations while it doesn’t seem to her the landowners are in emergency situations.
Still, she was adamant about the solution being a temporary one until Crook County could put together its own water district.
Carter-King added that the agreement shouldn’t create headaches for the city or set a bad precedent because she doesn’t believe it’s a permanent solution.
“I was glad we were able to come to some kind of solution and all be in the same room for a change,” Carter-King said.
It’s still unclear who in Crook County will need water right away.
Mike Cole, the city’s utilities director, said there are 11 inactive water taps in Crook County. There also are five active taps that use Madison water and pay for it.
Cole estimated that one landowner “needs the water tomorrow,” two others will likely need water by the end of the year and that two or three will need water in the near future.
Crook County landowner Ivan Cranston said he spent about $100,000 to drill new water wells after his went dry about a year ago. He suspects work on the Regional Water Supply project caused his well to dry up although that hasn’t been proven.
Minnie Williams is another landowner who had her wells recently go dry.
Two other landowners who spoke at Friday’s meeting were Joey Kanode and Matt Wood. Most of Kanode’s issues are with reclamation efforts by contractors hired by the city. The same is true of Wood, who is Driskill’s son-in-law.
It is not known yet if Kanode or Wood would be among the handful of landowners to take advantage of the new deal.
A conference call is scheduled for this week to finalize plans and put the agreement into writing. The call is expected to include the city of Gillette, some of the affected landowners and a representative from each the Select Water Committee and the Wyoming Water Development Commission.
The agreement is expected to lay out an immediate solution for the landowners and a longer-term solution for the water discharge issue.
“The problem now is landowner approval for discharge,” Driskill said. “They’ve got a problem with that. I’m going to try to help (the city) with that, but they have to be nice to me.”
Preliminary reports have found that the wells are adequately sealed and not behind the problems those landowners have experienced, Cole said prior to Friday’s meeting.
He added that the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality has given the city permission to proceed with wells 11 and 12 and that they should be up and running by the end of September.
“The reality is, regardless of whatever agreements or discussion points we have today, it sets that road map moving forward,” Davidson said. “It doesn’t instantaneously give water (to the landowners). We need consent to discharge water to get M11 and M12 online. That’s the real linchpin in trying to make this project work.”