Wheatland Granted $1.6 Million To Replace Gigantic Failing Million-Gallon Water Tank

The State Loan and Investment Board on Monday gave Wheatland $1.6 million of the $7.5 million it requested for an emergency replacement of the failing 1 million-gallon water tank that could cause serious destruction if it ruptures and collapses and/or implodes.

Leo Wolfson

January 08, 20245 min read

Although this water tower built in 2001 was supposed to have a life expectancy of 50 years, it's badly leaking and close to failing.
Although this water tower built in 2001 was supposed to have a life expectancy of 50 years, it's badly leaking and close to failing. (Town of Wheatland)

The town of Wheatland will get some help from the state to replace a failing 1 million-gallon water tank that local officials say could cause serious destruction if it ruptures, but not nearly as much money as it asked for.

The State Loan and Investment Board (SLIB) voted unanimously Monday to provide the town a $1.6 million emergency mineral royalty grant to tear down the ailing tank.

This is substantially less than the $7.5 million that the town had requested. Making the motion for less money was State Auditor Kristi Racines.

The grant is intended to solely cover the cost to demolish the Black Mountain water storage tank and make improvements to existing water wells that would be used while a new tank is built. Dependence on the wells could last as long as two years before the new tank is constructed.

Wheatland Mayor Brandon Graves said if one of these wells were to become unusable, it would put his town in a real crisis for responding to a fire emergency.

Leaking from the huge tank has increased significantly in recent years and Wheatland Water Department head Rick Keck estimates the structure is losing at least 1 million gallons worth of water per year.

Had SLIB approved the full $7.5 million request, that would have covered 92% of the total project cost. The remaining amount was to be covered by $623,000 in federal America Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money the city has at its disposal.

The Water Quality Division of the state Department of Environmental Quality, and the Office of State Lands and Investments (OSLI) both recommended SLIB only approve $1.6 million for the demolition and temporary replacement costs of the tank project, stating that the town could seek money to build a new water tank from other sources.

Why Less?

Shortly after Monday’s special board meeting started, Wheatland officials expressed an openness to a smaller grant of $6.3 million, and then later $3.2 million.

Awarding Wheatland $6.3 million would’ve left only $3.4 million remaining over the next six months in the emergency mineral royalty grant fund, an account Gov. Mark Gordon and Racines said has not been consistently supported by the Wyoming Legislature. Racines said the only reason this account still has money in it is because SLIB has been deeply scrutinizing any project seeking money from it.

“The Legislature has absolutely obliterated these funds in the last four years,” Racines said.

State Rep. Jeremy Haroldson, R-Wheatland, told Cowboy State Daily there has been a viewpoint held by the Legislature that the money dedicated to this account wasn’t being fully utilized.

Concerns about depleting the fund was a major issue expressed by Racines, Gordon and Superintendent of Public Instruction Megan Degenfelder.

“My concern always remains with that emergency aspect,” Gordon said. “We just don’t know what we can expect.”

Gordon also said emergency grant requests don’t receive as extensive of review as normal grant requests.

The town had asked for the money in response to what it sees as an emergency situation, while tearing down the failing tank would mitigate the immediate emergency, the board found.

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Costs And Figures

Building a new 400,000-gallon tank will cost the town $4.5 million alone.

The town has applied for Wyoming Water Development Commission money for the construction of the new tank, which recommended around $2.6 million for the project. This funding would have to be approved during the upcoming legislative session.

Haroldson said this option would still leave the town with a significant shortfall to get the tower built. He told the board a dedication of at least $6.3 million would get the town to where it needs to be.

“What I don’t want to see happen is that we, through lack of funding, hold back the opportunity to get this new tower put into place,” he said.

Haroldson then pitched SLIB for $3.2 million, which would at least allow the town to immediately start replacing the tower.

“The $3.2 (million) would give us the ability to not be sitting on our hands at any point in this process,” he said.

But when speaking to Cowboy State Daily after Monday’s meeting, Haroldson said the state’s grant will still allow the town to start removing the old tank.

“At the end of the day it still puts us in a better position,” he said.

OSLI staff mentioned Wheatland could also pursue an additional state loan with principal forgiveness to complete the project.

Multiple members of SLIB said they want the loan process expedited to help Wheatland. Haroldson said the town will move forward with this process immediately, but expressed some disappointment that the money is from the federal government.

Qualifying the town for this loan would require it to raise its individual user water rates from $20 for the first 10,000 gallons used, a rate that has been in place since 2011.

How Bad Is It?

The water tank that was built around 2001 has grossly underperformed its life expectancy of 50 years. But a water study performed as recently as 2019 didn’t identify the tower as an emergency or issue of top priority for the town.

The tank has now fallen into such a poor state that local officials say no construction company will place a bid to repair it. Ray Catellier, a project engineer for Casper-based engineering firm CEPI, which has been hired to build the town’s new tank, said leaking from the tank has increased by 50% in the past year.

“It has gone from the point of being a nuisance to an actual emergency where the tank could suffer a catastrophic failure,” Catellier said.

Also putting pressure on the tank is the significant home development in his city since the tank’s original construction, Graves said.

“The emergency factor is probably a lot higher than you might realize,” he said.

Close-up of failing and leaking rivets on a 1 million-gallon water tower in Wheatland.
Close-up of failing and leaking rivets on a 1 million-gallon water tower in Wheatland. (Town of Wheatland)

Leo Wolfson can be reached at leo@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Leo Wolfson

Politics and Government Reporter