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On the hook for cisterns, state to pay for water too

Already on the hook for Pavillion cisterns, state to pay for water too

Jan 28, 2014 - By Eric Blom, Staff Writer

Gov. Matt Mead has committed another $400,000 to provide water for Pavillion-area landowners affected by bad groundwater and receiving a cistern from a state program. A policy adviser for the governor, Jerimiah Rieman, announced the move at a Jan. 24 meeting with residents.

The program providing state-funded cisterns the state legislature launched in 2012 did not envision also supplying the water. Filling the tanks originally was to have the landowners' responsibility, but the state is now planning to help with that as well.

"That's where the conversation starts with all of you, though," Rieman said to the landowners. "How do we use all that money?"

Fears that hydraulic fracturing contaminated ground water in the Pavillion natural gas field led the federal and state governments to study the issue and spurred the state to start the water tank program for people living in the rural area outside Pavillion. The Town of Pavillion's municipal water supply is not affected.

The state has established a final deadline for the cistern program, Rieman announced. Landowners have until Feb. 23 to sign up for a cistern and until March 25 to sign a contract with the state for installation.

"We want first of all to have a sound understanding of the number of people who want cisterns so we can budget off that," Rieman said. "(Also) we've had this offer of cisterns out for two years, and it's time for us to get that completed."

So far, 27 households have signed up for 29 cisterns. A contractor expects to finish installing the first 19 cisterns, those for residents who signed up in the first phase of the program, by Feb. 21.

Some tanks already been installed, and work on a loading station also is under way, Rieman said.

Residents now receiving water in five-gallon jugs will continue to do so until the end of the state's investigation of groundwater, which is expected to finish sometime after Sept. 30.

Rieman also announced that a recently drafted budget bill includes $150,000 more for the cistern program on top of the $750,000 the Legislature appropriated in 2012. Residents and media reports raised concerns the original sum might not be enough to cover all the planned or potential cistern installations and the water loading station construction.

"I did want to try to ease any concern and ensure we have plenty of money," Rieman said.

Several more households still could sign up for the program. When the program started, state officials believed 35 landowners lived near the Pavillion field and could qualify to receive a cistern.

Mead allocated the $400,000 from a $1.5 million grant to the state from Encana Corp., the operator of most wells in the Pavillion field.

Landowners receiving cisterns need to develop some sort of organization to receive the $400,000 and manage water distribution, Rieman said, because the state cannot legally give money directly to a resident. Options include a water district, a water association or the state could run the distribution of water or water funds, Rieman said, but the choice of structure is up to the residents.

The Town of Pavillion cannot manage a water distribution program because doing so would constitute "unfair competition" to private entities, which is illegal for towns to do, Pavillion Mayor Gary Hamlin said.

Landowners at the meeting decided to hold a meeting Jan. 29 at Wind River High School for people interested in forming an informational committee to investigate organizational options. The group, which so far is open to anyone, would collect questions from landowners, receive answers from state agencies, and provide that information back to residents.

Cistern owners will have to decide many questions, Rieman said, such as whether residents will transport their own water, the group will buy a water truck or hire a private company to deliver it, and how to portion out the $400,000 over time.

A quick calculation based on a conservative estimate of water use and an average price for delivering water showed the $400,000 would last about eight years, Rieman said.

Dan Taylor, owner of a trucking company, advised against trying to do everything in-house, saying a water truck costs about $300,000 and a typical trucker earns about $80,000 a year.

"You've shot your wad right there," he said.

Mark Pepper, of Wyoming Association of Rural Water Systems, said he would be available for advice and information on different organizational structures.

"The easiest thing would be to form an association that can contract with someone (to deliver the water)," he said.

Klaus Zoller, who resides in the project area was worried the process of deciding how to manage the $400,000 for water would not be appropriate.

"You can tell by all the confusion it's going to be really hard to form a committee in some kind of democratic faction," he said.

In an interview, Rieman defended the timeline of announcing the new funds less than a month before most of the cisterns are to be completed. The state was working on many parts of the Pavillion groundwater issue, including its three investigations into the matter, he said.

He also pointed out that the original cistern program did not envision paying for water and said the residents do not have to finalize an organization by any specific date.

Residents interested in a cistern can contact Keith Clarey, program manager for the Wyoming Water Development, at 777-7626 or keith.clarey@wyo.gov.

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