For those living in a small town, the excitement that accompanies a sudden boom can be contagious. But it's easy to forget that sudden, rapid industrial growth is often accompanied by a considerable amount of stress on the people and the infrastructure of a boomtown. Williston, ND, has already witnessed the boom/bust cycle firsthand; in the 1970s and '80s, the town experienced a significant oil boom, but the local economy crashed when falling oil prices prompted energy companies to leave the region, taking their jobs and money with them. This time around, the town's more cautious approach to growth is evident in how it's managing increased demands on its resources and public services.
The Issue: In 2014, the town saw a 125 percent increase in felonies. Before the boom, the Williston police force of 26 sworn officers protected and served at a rate of about one officer per 692 people, but hiring enough new officers to keep pace with the town's growth has been challenging. The population surge brought with it increases in traffic accidents, aggravated assaults, and other crimes.
The Response: Despite facing stiff hiring competition from oil companies, the Williston police force managed to hire 16 new officers for a total of 42 sworn officers serving about 33,000 people. Now, the town has one officer per 786 people.
High Water Demand
The Issue: Built in 1960 to service a significantly smaller population, the Williston Water Treatment Plant has struggled to meet increased water demands from fracking, construction, and the swelling regional population. North Dakota's total industrial water use related to fracking increased by an average of 43 percent between 2008-2013, and it's estimated that 1,600 new wells each year will require as much as 18 million gallons of frack water per day. In addition to the increased industrial water needs, Williston's population has more than doubled since the 2010 census, and that means the water infrastructure has to service many more thirsty people.
The Response: To bolster the town's water supply, Williston now brings in water via pipeline from the Missouri River, thanks to its participation in the Western Area Water Supply Project (WAWSP). The aging Williston Water Treatment Plant underwent a major upgrade to increase its service capacity, making it capable of processing several million additional gallons of potable water per day. The project currently provides plenty of water for more than 70,000 people, including Williston and the project's five-county service area. When completed, WAWSP is expected to provide drinking water to 160,000 people by 2038.
Poor Road Conditions
The Issue: Delivering the materials used by each Bakken oil rig requires an estimated 2,000 trips made by heavy trucks, and the roads in and surrounding Williston are subject to excessive wear and tear from the constant truck traffic. One estimate predicts that fixing North Dakota's damaged roadways could cost in excess of $900 million over 20 years.
The Response: To help alleviate the disruptive traffic in town, work began in 2014 on the Williston Truck Reliever Route, a $162 million, four-lane bypass that will help keep truck traffic out of the downtown area.
The Issue: The end of Williston's previous boom in the 1980s left the town struggling to absorb $28 million spent on infrastructure intended to service new housing construction that never materialized. It took the town approximately 15 years to pay off the financing for the project, so the town government is taking a more measured approach with the current boom. While the town is trying to minimize its risk related to new housing construction, its more cautious process means it takes longer to build desperately needed living quarters for the influx of oil workers. The housing shortage has made real estate prices in Williston among the highest in the country.
The Response: The town now regulates temporary housing for workers, including the sprawling "man camps" that offer basic accommodations for oil workers. In 2014, Williston issued roughly $500 million in building permits, some of which are to build high-quality, permanent housing, and developers are now required to share financial responsibility for projects that fail.
American history is littered with tales of once-prosperous boomtowns that enjoyed brief success before going bust; what remains to be seen is whether Williston learned enough from its own history to persevere and thrive amid a new oil renaissance. With careful management, the town may be able to avoid repeating its own history.