By Sarah Pridgeon
Via Wyoming News Exchange
SUNDANCE — For over a year, the David-versus-Goliath tale of a small group of landowners represented by Senator Ogden Driskill going up against the formidable City of Gillette has dragged on. The Carlile-area landowners, after their wells suddenly ran dry or acidic, hoped to hook on to the Madison Water System, but the city felt it should concentrate on the needs of its own citizens first.
A resolution signed last week by Gillette Mayor Louise Carter-King appears to have brought the story to a positive conclusion for all. The beleaguered landowners will get their water taps, Gillette can continue its expansion work on the Madison water system and Crook County will have opportunities to further explore its options in the future.
“It really lays a very solid groundwork for Crook County to be able to have an entry point far beyond those taps down the road,” says Driskill, who has fought on behalf of the landowners since the well issue was first discovered in late 2017.
“The way we structured it, it really leaves the door wide open for this water study for us to be able to get into the Gillette regional system on a reasonably honest basis and have it where Crook County truly gets a piece of the well field.”
The cause of the well issue has never been officially determined, despite studies by the Department of Environmental Quality. In February, it was found that 32 of the 55 locations tested around Carlile fell outside the DEQ’s guidelines and regulations for safe water.
Early in the process, Driskill petitioned for Gillette to allow the affected landowners to hook on to their water system, but the city was unwilling due to demand on its system and argued that it should concentrate on getting new wells online first so it could meet the needs of its own residents. While the cause of the issue was investigated, however, that work was prevented from continuing.
“This agreement gives us five livestock taps, which they’ve fought over forever, and allows all our other taps to be activated that are on that line. Ironically, those taps are all in place, that’s no cost to Gillette, the money has been spent for all that,” says Driskill of the solution that has finally been reached.
“We’ll make that part of the bill effective immediately so, theoretically, Crook County guys with existing taps will be able to hook into that line almost immediately after the [legislative] session.”
The way the agreement does this, he explains, is by modifying the amendment he tacked on to last year’s omnibus water bill, which would have forced Gillette to allow the Crook County taps if they wanted the state funding necessary to continue the project. Gillette, unhappy with this “punitive” approach and concerned over its implications, turned the money down.
“I’ve continued to push on them and, at the very last water meeting, I was very cross and basically said, look, if you guys don’t have a solution on the table by the last water meeting, the one that comes up this week, you can expect to see something. I couldn’t tell them what it was because it wouldn’t be me coming, but the legislature is very upset with the way Gillette has handled this,” Driskill says.
“The state has invested several hundred million dollars into this project and they feel like they’ve got a right to be treated and have Crook County be treated fairly. Gillette just didn’t see it that way, they look at it…like they have complete ownership of this thing and the state feels like they’ve got some rights.”
Driskill believes Gillette would have fared better had the city been willing to come to an agreement when the problem first cropped up.
“It could have happened this way up front at the start with no angst because this actually is more by a lot than what we asked from them. By pushing as hard as they did, they actually ended up giving a lot more than they needed to according to the start,” he says.
“I would guess conservatively we’re one to five million dollars into this thing. Part of it is state money, part of it is Gillette’s money, and they also spent another summer with a shortage of water because of their stubbornness. Thank the good lord common sense prevailed and we’re actually doing the right thing both environmentally and economically long term.”
Driskill is pleased that the outcome is good for all involved and says it won’t prevent Crook County from moving ahead with plans to investigate the possibility of creating a water district in the area that could hook on to the Madison system as a customer of the City of Gillette.
“This will not stop it, this adds to it. The water study will go forward, though it will temper the water study a little in the fact that it will literally make it where they have something to hook on to without fighting or being forced into it,” he says.
“Up until this point, we would have either had to drill new wells or force our way into the Gillette regional system and this will allow us to have legal access into that system. That’s very important.”
Down the road, he continues, it will allow the county to form that water district and tap into those eight or 12 inch lines and also guarantees the water rate will be the same as Campbell County residents pay.
“We’re not being given a gift, but we’re being given an entry into the water system,” he says.
Driskill is also relieved that the solution will provide a much more acceptable solution for Crook County landowners than Gillette’s previous offer had done.
“The water use agreement that they sent to people before this agreement was poisonous. The lawyers all said it was terrible and we had one of the landowners sign it, and it probably devalues their land forever,” he says.
“The agreement allows Gillette to discharge water anywhere on their place, anytime, and allows them to go anywhere on their ranch, at any time, and is an open ended deal that is tied to the title of the land. We could not extinguish that agreement as part of our deal.”
In a second win for Crook County’s landowners, plans to discharge Gillette’s new water wells across private property in the Carlile area prior to bringing them online have been altered.
“The new discharge is going to be at Deer Creek and we’re not going to have any more discharges off the top of the hill. DEQ has told them to put a valve in off the 30-inch line and discharge it into Deer Creek, which is right at the edge of Keyhole, which, ironically, is once again exactly what we asked for right from day one – we never told them no,” Driskill says.
“Gillette has steadfastly refused to even talk about it and now, all of a sudden, after several millions of dollars and lots of fighting, they’re going to do the right thing and what a logical person would have done from day one.”
For Driskill himself, it’s been a rocky journey to get to this point. As fall arrived, he found himself concerned it could lose him the election.
“It could theoretically have cost me my job. I came out of this very lucky and I am deeply thankful to the people of Crook County for their long support in this,” he says.
“Crook County stood behind me and that really matters to me – I certainly wouldn’t have been back in Cheyenne if it wasn’t for Crook County giving me a vote of confidence and that really helped me to be able to go ahead and stay incredibly hard on this.”