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Lawmakers use federal funds to help Wheatland with a water tank emergency

A water tower along a residential street with winter dead trees around it.
David Dudley
/
Wyoming Public Media
This water tank, which holds up to one million gallons of water, has been leaking for years. Wheatland officials say it's beyond repair. It provides drinking water for roughly 1,000 Wheatland residents.

Update: Since the publication of this story Gov. Mark Gordon vetoed the line in the budget that gave Wheatland $2 million for the purpose of fixing the water tank.

In his explanation for the line veto, Gordon said "This section is another example of the of the legislature not passing the standalone legislation and responding by adding a section to the budget."

There's a one million gallon water tank in Wheatland, an hour's drive north of Cheyenne. It's been leaking for years, and it's getting worse. Town officials have raised over $6 million for repairs through various channels. But they're still short by $2 million.

Rep. Jeremy Haroldson (R-Wheatland) took the opportunity during this year’s legislative budget session to try to get that money for his community. But it didn’t come easily.

The first attempt 

On the second to last day of the session, Rep. Haroldson stepped up to the microphone in the House of Representatives chamber. He was going to ask the House for funds from a water construction bill to fix the failing water tank.

The tank in question provides drinking water for the Black Mountain community. Those who live near it know that it leaks profusely, and nonstop. If it isn't fixed soon, the water that sustains life could turn deadly for roughly one thousand residents.

"We are at a point where we've had an engineer tell us that we are one bad storm or one instance away from having 700,000 gallons [of water] going through our community," said Haroldson. "I want you guys to let that sink in for a second."

In the silence that followed, lawmakers mulled Haroldson's request. But some, like Rep. Trey Sherwood (D-Laramie), were unmoved.

"I would say, let's not drain this leaking water tank any further, by draining our account any further," said Sherwood. "So, vote your conscience."

Others, like Rep. Landon Brown (R-Cheyenne), argued that Haroldson isn't using the right avenues to secure funding. Haroldson was perplexed. He said that they’ve done everything possible to raise the funds.

"We've passed a six-penny tax in our community to raise money out of our own community," said Haroldson. "We increased our water cost per customer. I went to SLIB [State Land and Investment Board] when I knew it was an emergency."

Despite the urgency of his plea to the House of Representatives, Haroldson's cause was stripped from the water construction bill.

Living in the shadow of the tank

Wheatland—population 3,600—is still facing an emergency. What does that emergency look like on the ground?

A man stands on the front porch of a trailer. A water tower looms behind him.
David Dudley
/
Wyoming Public Media

Adam Vogel lives with his family, including two teenagers, in a mobile home situated in the tank's shadow. Near the rear of his lot, runoff from the leaking tank has pooled into a large, muddy puddle.

"If I stand in the yard on a windy day the water hits me,” he said. “And there's not a cloud in the sky."

Vogel said that he alerted town officials about it eight months ago when he first moved to the lot.

"They said they already knew about it," said Vogel. "I trusted they were going to fix it, but I don't like to take anything for granted."

Vogel said he intends to move when his lease is up. He's keeping his fingers crossed that nothing happens before then.

Volunteer firefighter Alan Snook and his family live two blocks to the north. Snook said he's watched the tank closely since moving there in 2018—and the rust and leaking has only grown worse.

"When it got super cold here recently, you could actually see the ice buildup on the outside," said Snook. "And [it] actually broke some of the ladder off that goes up the side of the tank."

A crumbled ladder beside a white water tank.
David Dudley
/
Wyoming Public Media
Wreckage from a ladder - felled after leaking water froze two months ago - is piled at the foot of the water tank.

As a first responder, Snook worries about his neighbors. Many are elderly. There are two schools nearby, including Wheatland Middle School, and a nursing home. Snook said he would have to spring into action if 700,000 gallons of water flooded the community. And he worries about potentially worse problems.

"So we know the rumors," he said. "There have been birds that get in there. And, of course, the town has to ingest all the chemicals in there accordingly to combat all of that stuff. You wonder what all that excess stuff is doing to the water system and us that drink it?"

"Zippering"

Rick Keck, the head of Wheatland's water and waste departments, said he’s been watching the tank closely since 2009.

"That's when I first noticed that there was a problem," he said. "They were just leaks then, and we were fixing them as they sprung up."

He said that birds had not gotten into the tank.

"But if they had, we'd use chlorine gas to treat the water," he said. "Which is what we use to disinfect the water now. So, there's no need to worry about that."

The thing that worries Keck is called "zippering."

"Basically, that's what happens when all the bolts come loose," Keck said. "The metal deteriorates to a certain point, and then it just gives way. It collapses."

The second attempt

Back at the House of Representatives, Haroldson paced the floor. After the water construction bill had been passed—without money for the water tank—the discussion turned to $50 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds that needed to be assigned to specific projects before the end of the session—the following day.

Wyoming received $1.1 billion dollars in 2021. The Biden administration asked that states use the funds for health and human services, infrastructure, water and sewer projects, among others. Maintaining vital public services, like water, amid declines in revenue is just one of many ways to use the funds.

Suddenly, Haroldson's ask was alive again.

Rep. Lloyd Larsen (R-Lander) said that he and his colleagues had been looking for ways to spend those funds on appropriate projects since the early days of the session when their first attempt at it was shot down by lawmakers.

"We're down to the last $50, $60 million," said Larsen. "And, as legislators, we like to drive the last nail in the coffin, if you will, and make sure that we know where that last dime went. I think, in this effort, it's more important that we don't send any back."

Some representatives were still pushing against the request, saying that Wheatland had jumped the line. Larsen said they do have a heart, and Wheatland's situation is dire.

"They realize that this is a community that probably has used all the resources they have available," said Larsen. "And, based on their ability to generate sales tax and other fees, are kind of [at their] wit's end."

Eventually, lawmakers added an amendment to the ARPA bill that would give $2 million in ARPA funds to the town of Wheatland. It went to vote and passed by a wide margin of 60 ayes to two noes.

After the vote, Haroldson said he was relieved. The first thing he did?

"I got to contact my community," said Haroldson. "I said, 'Hey, we got the money! This is really exciting!' And it's something that's available immediately, which is really good as well."

With the remainder of the funds in hand, Haroldson said they will drain the tank as soon as possible. Then, they'll begin building a new one.

This reporting was made possible by a grant from the Corporation For Public Broadcasting, supporting state government coverage in the state. Wyoming Public Media and Jackson Hole Community Radio are partnering to cover state issues both on air and online.

David Dudley is an award-winning journalist who has written for The Guardian, The Christian Science Monitor, High Country News, WyoFile, and the Wyoming Truth, among many others. David was a Guggenheim Crime in America Fellow at John Jay College from 2020-2023. During the past 10 years, David has covered city and state government, business, economics and public safety beats for various publications. He lives in Cheyenne with his family.

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