Bursting at the seams: Williston, Williams County service population grows 20 percent

WILLISTON -- The "service population" utilizing Williston city infrastructure and other services has increased at 10 times the normal rate, according to estimates by Nancy Hodur, a researcher at North Dakota State University.

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FNS Photo by Michael Vosburg New development is seen from the skies on July 9 in Williston. Officials say the city’s and Williams County’s service area has grown 20 percent, stressing its infrastructure.

WILLISTON - The “service population” utilizing Williston city infrastructure and other services has increased at 10 times the normal rate, according to estimates by Nancy Hodur, a researcher at North Dakota State University.

“Service population” takes into account census data, as well as non-traditional residents considered part of a commuting or workforce population. It’s also gives a glimpse at the booming population of the city in the heart of the oil boom in western North Dakota.

The number of people who used Williston city infrastructure in 2014 is estimated at 31,143, according to Hodur's study, which was commissioned by the city to determine how many people use its infrastructure and what its future needs will be.

Williston, surrounding townships and other parts of Williams County have a service population of 52,778, which excludes other areas of the county such as Tioga, Ray and Epping.

"Normal" and "healthy" growth rates, Hodur said, fall in around 2 percent.


Williston grew 20 percent from 25,915 to 31,143 between 2012 and 2014. Williams County grew 19 percent from 44,308 to that 52,778 figure in the same timeframe.

"You're drinking water out of a fire hose," she told city commissioners last week.

Hodur began studying the area's population in 2012 and projected a 2014 population that year. Williston's 2010 census data was added to the number of people living in hotels, crew camps, RV parks and other conditional use permitted housing. She repeated this method for six Williston townships and Williams County outliers, based on historic persons per household rates, hotel data provided by the Williston Convention and Visitors Bureau, building permit stats and data collected from experts on the ground in the region.

The idea was to assist the city in finding a population figure, and overcome census limitations and lag time. Her 2012 projections, compared with recent estimates, were all within a 5 percent margin of error.

"We did pretty well," Hodur said. "That bodes very well and reinforces that if we do the hard work to dig out the primary data from the planning department, the city and the county, we can get a good handle on how many bodies-how many noses-are in the Williston area."

City Engineer Bob Hanson said Hodur's figures match what the city's wastewater plant is being asked to handle. A calculation of 80 gallons of wastewater per day used on average, multiplied by 31,143, equals more than 2.4 million gallons a day. Public Works Director David Tuan said the plant is running at 2.5 million gallons a day.

But, Hodur asked, what about the so-called slowdown happening from the oil price drop?

She ratcheted down the percentages of non-traditional housing capacities to produce a medium and low-end service population projection. The medium occupancy level showed Williston at 30,643 people and the immediate surrounding area at 48,410. The lower projection returned populations of 29,430 and 46,827, respectively.


"The number barely moves. It still just takes it down a blip, it's like a rounding error," Hodur said. "You're still drinking out of a fire hose."

And yet, the projected numbers still have flexibility, she said.

According to Hodur, there is no data set to measure seasonal shifts in population. There's also no way to account for a higher-than-normal persons per household or RV using census data. But the people sharing housing could be higher because of  high rents and a scarcity of rental lots and units that force non-traditional residents to double or triple the people in a household  in some cases.

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