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Monke: There's no place like Watford City

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opinion Dickinson, 58602
Dickinson North Dakota 1815 1st Street West 58602

Nothing in America compares to what’s happening right now in Watford City. It’s as simple as that.

As Williston gets the headlines and Dickinson sees the benefits of the Bakken oil boom while not having to deal with the truly dirty side of it, Watford City is stuck right in the middle of it all — “the epicenter” of the biggest shale oil play in American history, as McKenzie County Economic Development Director Gene Veeder put it.

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Most of the talk about Watford City in the past couple years has been about the bypass to send Highway 85’s heavy truck traffic around the city. Lately, we learned of a company in Watford City improperly disposing of radioactive filter socks.

But to truly understand what’s happening on the ground, you have to sit down and speak to the city’s leaders.

After chatting with several Watford City leaders and citizens on Feb. 13, I realized I could spend a week there and only scratch the surface of what’s happening.

In a series of interviews that lasted more than four hours, I received a tutorial on all things Watford City — what it was like before the boom, what it’s like now and what leaders hope the city becomes in the future.

Right now, it’s not good. And there’s no way to sugarcoat it.

The city is growing rapidly and is struggling to deal with the population influx that’s creating challenges at its schools, health care facilities and, of course, on the roads.

Most leaders point to the lack of oil-impact funding from the North Dakota Legislature.

Watford City was not included in the “hub city” funding awarded by legislators in the 2013-15 biennium. It got $10 million toward water and sewer infrastructure, as well as various other small grants and awards.

It may be difficult for legislators not to include Watford City as a hub city when it meets again in 2015. McKenzie County produced more than 8 million barrels of oil in December and had more than one-third of the state’s active drilling rigs at the end of the third week of February, according to the state’s Department of Mineral Resources.

“There’s going to be a lot of drilling in our county for a long time,” Mayor Brent Sanford said.

It only takes a drive around town to see what an impact the oil boom has made on Watford City.

In less than four years, the city has quadrupled in population from 1,744 — there aren’t many longtime Watford City residents I spoke with who didn’t know that number from the 2010 U.S. Census by heart — to more than 7,500 with more workers expected to come this summer for a busy construction season. They’re in a mad rush to build the city out and up to take care of growth, which isn’t anticipated to stop anytime soon.

“Watford City people would love for it to be 3,000 people and it tops out at that,” Sanford said. “But there’s no way that’s going to happen.”

At this point, city leaders are actually counting on it. They’re making financial decisions by preparing for a permanent population of 17,000.

To wrap your head around that figure, imagine taking the population of Dickinson before the oil boom and dropping everyone into an area roughly seven times smaller in size and with fewer services.

Before it has to worry about more population growth, however, Watford City plans to take care of its school enrollment issues. The enrollment in kindergarten through fifth grade is larger than the entire district was three years ago, McKenzie County School Superintendent Steve Holen said.

“We often look back and think that it’s hard to comprehend that,” he said.

If Watford City maintains its current population and sees even a normal rate of student migration, it stands to become a Class A-sized school before the end of the decade.

On March 11, McKenzie County citizens — somewhat of a loose term at this point — will vote on whether or not to fund a $27 million bond referendum that would go toward building a $50 million high school and allow students to be split between three buildings instead of two and alleviate most of the enrollment problems for the foreseeable future.

But the biggest challenge for Watford City is trying to convince legislators that it’s worth investing in the city and its estimated $240 million in infrastructure needs.

Larry Larsen, a longtime Watford City pharmacist and owner of Larsen Service Drug on Main Street, said the state is trying to save the oil revenue coming out of McKenzie County and other Oil Patch counties “for a rainy day.”

Meanwhile, storm clouds are hanging over his hometown and they aren’t going away.

“We’re in the rainy-day times right now,” he said. “We have to have some type of help.”

Monke is the managing editor of The Dickinson Press. Email him at dmonke@thedickinsonpress.com, tweet him at monkebusiness and read his past features and columns at monke.areavoices.com.

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