A test well is drilled at the site of Gillette’s expanded municipal and regional wellfield near Carlile. (City of Gillette)

Residents in Crook County say Gillette’s latest plan to connect to two large city water wells in their Carlile neighborhood are irresponsible and could cause rural residents more water problems.

The Carlile resistance comes more than a year after residents first complained that some of their wells had dried up or turned acidic — some believe because of the nearby city project. Gillette is expanding its municipal well field located near Carlile, 40 miles to its east, in a partially state-funded project totaling more than $217 million.

Elements of the effort stalled after problems developed in small domestic and stock wells around Carlile.

But now, facing anticipated strains on its municipal and regional system, Gillette is seeking to bring two of five new wells in its troubled Gillette-Madison expansion project on line. It needs to first flush chlorinated water — used to clean and pressure-test the system — from at least one well and a pipeline.

In a land where water is scarce and additional flows are usually welcomed, the prospect of that extra discharged water and where it might flow has sparked the latest fight.

Gillette would send the discharge — at a rate that approximates the force of a fully open fire hydrant — through Rocking K Acres, a Crook County subdivision of perhaps a dozen homes on five-acre lots. Residents there are wary, citing issues their neighbors first experienced with their private wells last summer.

“I think it’s totally irresponsible for a city to discharge through a subdivision like that,” said Joey Kanode, who lives near the development that his parents created in the 1980s. “They have better alternatives to discharge water.”

Area residents want baseline testing of private wells all around the city’s Carlile well field, which now has 15 wells that reach some 1,000 feet or more to the deep Madison limestone formation. But nobody’s agreed to pay for that testing program, said Sen. Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower), who represents Carlile residents and others.

Now, more than a year after problems first emerged, “we’re back to where we started,” Driskill said.

Voters’ mandate

Gillette needs more water, city spokesman Geno Palazzari says — it’s as simple as that. The wellfield expansion in Carlile seeks to meet the municipality’s needs and serve regional residents in about 40 separate water districts in a coordinated, responsible fashion.

In 2005 the city began using more water than it could produce, Palazzari said. Since then the city and schools have begun conserving water and undertaking voluntary actions that “our residents have accepted and taken to heart,” he said.

Gillette long ago grew beyond its ability to supply residents’ water from local sources, so it looked east and now pipes supplies from 40 miles away. Additional remote wells have run into problems and pitted rural Crook County residents against the city. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

The regional expansion and the five new wells are scheduled to serve numerous water districts. Seven subdivisions with approximately 517 houses were to be watered through funds provided in the 2018 Omnibus Water Bill passed by the Legislature earlier this year. Some are connected to Gillette’s system but the municipal valve to them has not been opened.

That’s because city officials say they can’t accept the terms of a legislative deal to make affected Crook County well owners whole.

Gillette won’t use $2.7 million appropriated earlier this year by the Legislature for the new services because of an amendment Driskill attached that would ensure some Carlile residents get to tap into the expansion and resolve their problems. Among the reasons: Gillette officials said their regional expansion is supported by local voter-approved tax dollars that exclude or prohibit the Carlile additions, uses and rates.

“There were a number of items that went against a number of agreements — what our residents voted on,” Palazzari said. Carlile residents would pay less than Gillette residents, he said. “That was part of the amendment we couldn’t have agreed with.”

Meantime, “we are not able to hook any new subdivisions” he said. “They are not able to receive water,” because they can’t accept the necessary state funding.

Gillette has a second option for flushing at least one well and associated pipeline — let the water flow into the Keyhole Reservoir, a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation facility that lies along the pipeline route. Of course, there’s a catch.

“We were not aware discharging … would require an additional permit,” said Levi Jensen, the city’s project manager. He believes the setback might be temporary, perhaps delaying the project another three months or so. But, “I don’t think it’s going to be an incredibly difficult process,” he said.

For Driskill, the new stumbling block is emblematic of a city that he says has run roughshod its over neighbors. Now, with the BOR, he said, Gillette is facing an entity with higher powers.

“This landowner’s much different from the others,” Driskill said.

DEQ probe offers uncertain answers.

In the past year Wyoming’s Department of Environmental Quality has investigated water pollution and scarcity problems around Carlile, which started when Michael Cranston found that his residential well and a backup had gone dry. Sampling found very low pH in area wells, making water unpotable and unusable even for washing and bathing.

The onset of problems coincided with Gillette drilling operations nearby and above Cranston’s home and ranch. To enhance the municipal wells for full production, drillers pumped acid down them and into the limestone, opening fissures and stimulating flows.

Michael Cranston stands next to a cistern he installed at his home near Carlile to serve four houses and 100 cattle after his domestic water wells went dry. He and others believe nearby drilling for a huge Gillette water supply project caused two wells to dry up and another two to produce foul, acidic water. (Lorri Lang/WyoFile)

Many suspected a connection between the drilling and nearby well problems even though the two aquifers were separated by hundreds of feet vertically. As Driskill said, “we know something has happened.”

In August, however, the DEQ released preliminary conclusions of its probe that would seem to discount many suspicions linking the city project to the rural troubles. For one, low pH in residential wells was found to be “related to” sulfuric acid, not the hydrochloric acid used in fracking the Gillette municipal wells.    

Instead, low pH in the rural wells may result from oxidation of pyrite — iron sulfide — in the water-bearing geological zone. DEQ hasn’t determined whether the oxidation is natural or caused by irrigation or previous discharges from the Gillette project.

If the low pH was caused by factors other than the Gillette project, the change in acidity would have happened 100 years ago, Cranston said Monday.

Added Driskill, the DEQ “didn’t totally say it wasn’t the cause of the problem or a contributor to it.”

The DEQ also reports that the first two wells that went dry on Cranston’s property have been recharged and are now holding water.

The initial cause of the wells going dry “could be anything from drought conditions to the yield of the well,” said Nicole Twing, geology supervisor at the state agency. Cranston’s problem could be from the well “being used faster than the aquifer returns.”

But a fifth-grader could see a correlation between Gillette work and his well drying up, Cranston suggested. He points to the timing of some initial and highly visible flushing.

Sen. Ogden Driskill (R, SD-1, Devils Tower)

“We could look across and see water going 200 feet in the air,” he said. “About 10 days, two weeks, later we had no water in our well. Both of our wells went dry  — our regular well and our backup well.

“Once we started raising hell in August, all their pumping stopped, all their discharges have stopped,” he said. “Lo and behold, two dry holes were full of water.”

DEQ’s preliminary conclusions also found that the seals between various aquifers through which the city wells were drilled — seals designed to keep the sources separate — were “not of continuous high quality.” New connection among aquifers and well sources are one potential source of the rural well disruption.

Nevertheless, the seals “were adequate to preclude comingling of groundwater,” the preliminary DEQ conclusions state.

Time for a new legislative fix?

Driskill said he has been so hammered by criticism over his attempts to reconcile the two interests he won’t bring new legislation to try to resolve the issue in 2019. “I do not intend to be primary sponsor of legislation that fixes this problem,” he said.

“It’s my belief if they haven’t come up with a reasonable solution by when the Legislature meets … there will be something [a bill] that deals with it,” he said. The sponsor, “that won’t be me this time.” That’s even though dozens of persons have asked him to resolve the issue in Cheyenne.

For now, Driskill may seek the $200,000 or so it would require for baseline water testing of private wells around the Gillette-Madison field. That could come from the Legislature’s Select Water Committee through the Wyoming Water Development commission, he said.

“Anybody who has common sense would want background testing,” he said.

“My job as a senator is to protect my constituents,” Driskill said. “It’s only fair that citizens are not violated or run over by government.”

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Gillette wants to serve its residents, but within the established framework of laws. Should the already-connected but unserved subdivisions see their local water systems fail, there could be trouble. “It is going to be difficult to absorb those if we aren’t able to have those additional capacities” from the Carlile well field, Palazzari said.

The DEQ is expected to update its investigation later this year. Meantime, it is accepting comments on the two discharge proposals through Nov. 2.

Aside from clean water, which he has spent $100,000 obtaining by drilling a well in the middle of the family ranch, Cranston’s request is simple. “I want my money back.”

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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