On a sunny and warm Friday in Northeast Wyoming, Levi Jensen and I drove east on Highway 51 out of Gillette.
Jensen is a utility project manager for the Gillette. We're driving along the pipelines that currently bring water into Gillette. It's not necessarily a tourist attraction.
"It's right in the ditch here. You obviously can't see it because it's buried there, like that yellow post out there is a test station for the pipeline," Jensen said.
Jensen oversees the Gillette-Madison pipeline project, which carries water from the Madison Aquifer in Crook County and brings it into Gillette where it supplies the city and some of the surrounding areas with water.
Jensen said the city has been working on expanding access to the water for years.
"We've grown in both residential, commercial, industrial type areas, and it's important to be able to provide the water service that's needed for those areas to expand," he said.
Gillette drilled its first Madison wells in the 1980s when the population boomed and its in-town sources couldn't keep up with demand.
Those wells were enough until the mid-2000s when the city realized they needed another expansion to keep up with the growing energy business and population.
"To do that, we have to drill more wells out at the Madison Aquifer, we had to build a new pipeline parallel to the one we built in the '80s and a few other upgrades to the system," Jensen said.
The city didn't have enough money on its own. So state officials approved a mix of loans and grants to work on getting those upgrades. The project is budgeted at $217.6 million. Officials say it's the largest water project in state history.
But with that funding came a request from a Wyoming Water Development Commission official who wanted the city to consider an addition to the project.
The request: "We needed to become a regional provider," Jensen said.
That means Gillette would need to allow water districts outside the city to hook onto the system. The regional expansion is an additional $60 million project.
Bryan Clerkin, deputy director of construction at the Wyoming Water Development Commission, said the regional expansion helps provide consistent safe drinking water in the area and it can save residents and the state money.
"If we didn't do a regional system, then each of those districts would want to have their own water system. From a state funding perspective, that starts to add up to be a lot of money," Clerkin said.
One example of a place that has a need is Crook County. Some private wells in the county went bad around the time the city was drilling its new wells for the pipeline. Some wells either dried up or became too acidic, and landowners believed the Madison construction and drilling was the cause. The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality investigated , and to date no correlation has been found.
"That led to an immediate crunch for those landowners for both livestock and domestic water. And they approached me for help about the possibility for hooking on to the Gillette Madison pipeline," said state Sen. Ogden Driskill. Driskill represents parts of Campbell, Crook and Weston counties, including the area with Madison well fields.
It didn't come easy, but after more than a year of tension and negotiations between Gillette, Driskill and Crook County landowners, the final deal allows five taps for the landowners for domestic and livestock purposes. It also leaves the option open if they wanted to form their own water district and formally hook on to the Gillette system.
Driskill said getting his constituents clean water is the main focus and that the final deal is fair to all groups involved.
"It also provides for the ability for those areas served by it to grow because water is a limiting factor in Wyoming. And it's going to allow them to provide potable water for the future growth of both counties," he said.
Driskill said that water can be acquired more cheaply than if the communities did it themselves.
Clerkin, with the water commission, said Gillette identified around 40 water districts that could hook on to the regional water system and about half have signed up so far. Any future growth depends on what the system can support.
"Ultimately, it's going to be limited by the capacity of the pipeline. And the wells that are supplying the water to the pipeline," Clerkin said.
For now, the Gillette-Madison pipeline's project manager Levi Jensen said the expansion and upgrades to the original system are nearly complete. The new wells should be ready to begin pumping water within the next year. Work will continue on the regional extensions.