Project improves water, allows Oil Patch towns to grow

Crews work on installing pipeline for the Western Area Water Supply Project. Photo courtesy of AE2S.

WILLISTON, N.D. – Crosby Mayor Les Bakken sums up the appearance of his city’s water like this: “It looks like you need to flush the toilet all the time.”

The yellowish tint to the city’s water is something residents have been accustomed to, he said.

“It is perfectly safe to drink, but it makes lousy coffee,” Bakken said.

Residents are hopeful that will soon change as Crosby and eight other northwest North Dakota communities begin benefiting from the Western Area Water Supply Project.

The project will bring high-quality, treated drinking water from the Missouri River to residents of Burke, Divide, McKenzie, Mountrail and Williams counties, where water quality is poor and in short supply.

Crosby leaders will turn the valve on its new water supply on Thursday. Watford City celebrated a similar milestone last week.

Soon the communities of Wildrose, Ross, Columbus, Fortuna, Ray, Tioga and Stanley will begin receiving the high-quality water as well.

Many residents of those communities have experienced water restrictions due to rapid growth related to the oil boom, and the Western Area Water Supply Project aims to meet those demands, said Executive Director Jaret Wirtz.

A lack of water has been a huge factor to limiting cities’ ability to build housing and expand to keep up with growing populations, he said.

“This will really help those communities grow,” Wirtz said.

For Watford City, the project is a “godsend,” said Mayor Brent Sanford.

For the city to build its own water treatment plant, it would have been costly and difficult to manage for population growth and increased demand from the oil industry, Sanford said.

Watford City water is hard, high in phosphates and has more sodium than recommended levels, said Wirtz, who lives in Watford City.

“It’s going to be a really big change,” Wirtz said of the new water supply.

The Legislature created the Western Area Water Supply Authority, which is made up of several western North Dakota water districts. The project was funded with $110 million in loans which will be repaid through the sale of water to the oil industry.

Another $40 million in loans will be requested during the upcoming legislative session, which officials anticipated asking for, Wirtz said.

Due to additional demand for water, Wirtz will request another $80 million for the project in a combination of grants and loans.

“The reason we need more is the amount of growth that just keeps coming,” Wirtz said.

By 2025, the project is anticipated to serve more than 80,000 people in five counties.

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