We spent a night in Watford City, which has seen extraordinary growth since the discovery of the Bakken oil and gas formation. Their population was 1,744 in 2010 and by 2015 it had exploded to 6,708. The roads leading into Watford City are lined with fields of manufactured homes and FEMA trailers. The planner in me wonders how or if water and sewer have been extended out to these areas. There are also multiple new apartment buildings in town and both the high school and elementary schools were being expanded. A crew cab pickup is the preferred mode of transportation and it looks like a predominately male community. Sarah and I were the only women in the filled-to-capacity bar/restaurant where we had dinner. Even our hotel catered to the workers – they had “parade of homes” booties at each door so the guys wouldn’t track dirt in. Not everyone’s a roughneck. The guys at the bar next to us were talking about EPA’s nonpoint source pollution regulations. The roads around Watford City and up through Williston were clogged with semis hauling sand and water and periodically there would be a mysterious water “disposal station”.
We visited the Fort Union Trading Post, a national historic site that’s on the North Dakota/Montana border. We were there in 2002 and in my travel journal I wrote about how isolated it was and how you could understand what it must have felt like back when the closest supply depot was 1800 river miles away in St. Louis. The increased Bakken activity hasn’t resulted in a lot of additional Fort Union visitors. The Park Ranger told us they average 60/day. We were the only ones there when we visited (see our lonely car in the parking lot). But while it’s still a lonely spot, the journey there is now defined by rows of semis on narrow two-lane roads. It reminded me of the important efforts to acquire more buffer land around Wilson’s Creek, Gettysburg and other battlefields so that the experience isn’t overpowered by development.
The Park Ranger also told us that the Bakken frenzy has subsided somewhat since the price of oil has decreased. We did notice that most of the developments had available units. What will happen to these developments if oil prices remain depressed? How will a community that grew so fast deal with vacant and/or abandoned properties? Did the building outpace the infrastructure? If families relocated for oil field work, will they stay? Are there work opportunities for spouses? Do you think they even have a city administrator, much less a planner?