A leaking water tank in the town of Wheatland has gone from bad to much worse in a manner of months because of expanding cracks and rusting to the structure.
Now, state Rep. Jeremy Haroldson, R-Wheatland, said if the problem isn’t fixed as soon as possible, failure of the 1 million-gallon tank could lead to disaster and destruction for his town. He’s petitioning the state’s leaders to do something about it.
“It’s been a thorn in our side as we desperately try to come up with solutions for it,” he said.
On Monday, the town will petition the State Loan and Investment Board to approve a $7.5 million emergency mineral royalty grant that will cover the cost of replacing the tank. SLIB is made up of the state’s top five elected officials, including Gov. Mark Gordon.
The water tank that was built around 2001 has grossly underperformed its life expectancy of 50 years. After having frequent repairs almost since its original construction, the tank has fallen into such a poor state that local officials say no construction company will place a bid to repair it.
“If you fix five leaks on Monday, by the end of the week there’ll be six new leaks,” said Wheatland Mayor Brandon Graves.
Wheatland Water Department head Rick Keck estimates the tank is losing at least $1 million worth of water per year, making the issue both a task of disaster mitigation as well as financial management.
“It’s just getting worse and worse,” he said. “I can’t fix this problem. This is something that’s over my head and there needs to be money involved.”
So much thick ice has developed on the outside of the structure that Keck said its built-in ladder was destroyed by a falling chunk last year, eliminating access to the top of the structure. On one occasion, the top of the water tank blew off, and the ground below the tank is so muddy it can’t be navigated.
Haroldson said the structure does not meet Environmental Protection Agency compliance because it cannot hold enough water.
Graves said although most of the land that would be impacted by a tank collapse is agricultural, the level of destruction would still be immense.
“It would be a colossal mess,” he said. “We know sooner or later we have to do something.”
The tank holds up to 1 million gallons of water but because of its leaking issues is being kept at around 700,000 gallons.
The Water Quality Division of the state Department of Environmental Quality, and the Office of State Lands and Investments (OSLI) have both recommended SLIB only approve $1.6 million for the project.
OSLI has determined that only the portion of the project related to the demolition of the current water tank and improvements to the city’s existing water wells meet the definition of an “emergency” as required by the program. That would mitigate the emergency, while building a replacement, it said, should be on the town to do, not the state.
“The funding of these specific elements of this application will alleviate an emergency situation which poses a direct and immediate threat to health, safety or welfare of the community,” OSLI writes in its staff report.
Haroldson disagrees and believes the entire project should be considered for the full grant because it would save the town about six months of time draining the current tank, tearing it down and building a new one.
“There’s some ugly time-consuming effects to get to the point where we need to be,” Haroldson said. “That’s why in my opinion, this would be a very good use of this grant by doing it in a timely fashion.
“This is going to gain us months if approved.”
If rejected for a full grant, the city will still be able to replace the tank and build a new one, but it will take more time and require taking out a loan.
If approved for the grant, Haroldson said the city will let the current tank drain dry and rely on temporary wells and pumps to store its remaining water until a new tank is constructed. But this opens a whole can of new problems as the success of handling a fire emergency at either of two schools in the community would be based on how much water could be pumped from a well. A failed well could also be disastrous for the town.
Total cost of the replacement is expected to cost $8.1 million, but the city already has $623,000 in federal America Rescue Plan Act money at its disposal. It also has funding available from a sixth penny tax that was renewed in Wheatland in 2022, but that tax is intended for general infrastructure and not solely the water tank.
Plans to build a new tank have been underway for more than a year in Wheatland, and the town has already hired an engineering firm to design the new tank. Haroldson still wants the public to realize this hasn’t been an issue of deferred maintenance and the city has already pursued multiple different grants for the project.
“The last couple months have gotten bad to the point of a potential disaster,” he said.
Why So Bad?
Keck said the main reason the old tank has failed is because of its bolted construction. The company that built the original tank has since gone defunct.
“I think the town should’ve got a better tower” in the first place, he said.
He said the new tank, which will hold 500,000 gallons, will have an elevated bubble design.
During a Dec. 11 Wheatland City Council meeting, Wheatland Clerk Candy Wright said part of the town’s agreement with Casper-based engineering firm CEPI to build a new tank includes on-site construction management.
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.